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Sources: China's Zhao in coma

Jiang Zemin
Zhao Ziyang
Tiananmen Square

BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- Zhao Ziyang, toppled as China's Communist Party chief for opposing the army crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests, is in a coma in hospital after multiple strokes, sources close to the family said.

The government put Zhao, now 85, under house arrest following his removal, fearing the residual influence of modern China's icon of reform could spark widespread protests.

"My dad suffered yet another stroke last night ... and is still in critical condition after emergency treatment," a source who spoke on condition of anonymity quoted Zhao's daughter, Wang Yannan, as saying.

She did not say how many strokes her father had had.

"He can't receive visitors now," Wang, who changed her name to keep a low profile, was quoted as saying. "We ask friends to pray with us for my father."

Hong Kong-based human rights activist Frank Lu, and a third source who has regular contact with the family, said Zhao was in a coma.

"The doctors are not optimistic about the situation, whether he can make it through the rest of today," Lu told Reuters after speaking with a source close to Zhao.

The third source said: "Rescue efforts were successful, but he is still in a coma and critical condition."

Zhao has been confined to his courtyard home in the Chinese capital for sympathizing with the student-led demonstrations, centered on Tiananmen Square, which were crushed by the army with heavy loss of life on June 3-4, 1989.

The Chinese leadership fears Zhao's death could serve as a rallying point for reformists, workers disgruntled at soaring unemployment and farmers disillusioned with the widening gap between rich and poor.

Zhao is at Beijing Hospital, where two eyewitnesses said things appeared calm and normal. The tightly controlled state media made no mention of Zhao.

The death in January 1976 of populist premier Zhou Enlai led to an outpouring of grief and protests on Tiananmen Square.

The passing of purged reform-minded party chief Hu Yaobang in April 1989 triggered the demonstrations that year that culminated in the army massacre.

Zhao was in hospital for three weeks in February with pneumonia. He was admitted to hospital again about a month ago with lung problems.

On Tuesday, Beijing dismissed Hong Kong newspaper reports that Zhao died of respiratory and heart failure in the Chinese capital on Jan. 8 and that the Chinese government had withheld the news for fear of social unrest.

But visitors to Tiananmen Square require police escorts to watch a daily flag-raising ceremony from Wednesday, a move analysts said may be to preempt any dawn protest in the event Zhao dies.

In 2003, Japanese media reported Zhao had died, but the Chinese cabinet spokesman denied it weeks later. It was seen as a trial balloon floated by the authorities to see how society would react to his death, though local media did not carry the report.

Zhao was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, when he tearfully begged student protesters to leave Tiananmen Square. Beijing declared martial law the next day and the army crushed their movement on June 3-4.

He was accused of trying to split the Communist Party and sacked as party general secretary and replaced by Jiang Zemin, who stepped down in 2002.

Analysts said Zhao stood virtually no chance of staging a political comeback and lacked the power to influence the day-to-day world of Chinese politics.

But some top leaders involved in, or who benefited from, the crackdown are still alive or influential and see Zhao as a security threat or as a political ghost haunting them, analysts said.

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