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China: Is Beijing's Leadership Playing With Fire In Honoring Hu Yaobang?

Hu Yaobang had helped current President Hu Jintao (pictured) early in his career (CTK) The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will officially commemorate the 90th birthday of the late General-Secretary Hu Yaobang on 20 November. Will the party embrace any of Hu's reformist legacy or address the thorny question of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which ended the demonstrations that followed Hu's death?

The CCP plans to honor Hu this month or the first time since his death in April 1989. Some international media have called this a rehabilitation, but the picture is more complex because he was never completely disgraced or cast into political oblivion like his immediate successor, Zhao Ziyang, who died earlier this year.
"The spirit of Hu Yaobang should be allowed to permeate China's
political and cultural life, to sweep away the suffocating air of
tyranny, corruption, and hypocrisy, and create another few million Hu

Hu Yaobang came from a poor peasant family and joined the CCP when he was 14. He hailed from Hunan province like Chairman Mao Zedong, but his protector and mentor was Deng Xiaoping, whom Hu met while serving with the party's military in 1941. Hu's career was subsequently bound up with that of Deng.

Second Fiddle To Deng

When Deng became China's de facto leader in 1977 and launched his reforms the following year, he sent Hu as his trusted lieutenant to run the CCP, of which Hu soon became general-secretary. In Chinese communist politics -- unlike in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states -- titles and rank have often been secondary in importance to the individual himself. Consequently, Deng was China's "paramount leader" for about two decades, even though his rank for most of that time was simply deputy prime minister. When he died in 1997 his only remaining title was that of head of the national association of bridge players.

Hu was thus second in importance to Deng, even though Hu was head of the CCP. He nonetheless made his mark nationwide as a blunt spokesman for the economic reforms that broke with the legacy of Mao, who died in 1976. Hu delivered a major speech in 1981 that presented a positive and negative balance sheet on Mao and his era. That address was intended to put an end to the debate on the CCP's past and direct attention toward reforms.

Hu's Downfall

In his years as general-secretary, Hu's name became associated with plain talking and serious debates. In 1986, he did not oppose the student demonstrations that emerged in 15 cities to demand the rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and a free press. This was too much for the party's powerful faction of hard-liners, who also blamed him for encouraging public criticism of the system itself and trying to move too far and too fast with economic reforms. Deng also urged Hu to moderate his language.

In January 1987, Hu was finally ousted as secretary-general. A CCP campaign ensued against "bourgeois liberalization," which was clearly aimed at undoing Hu's legacy. He was nonetheless allowed to retain his seat in the Politburo's Standing Committee, his face continued to appear in the media, and he was still a full member of the Politburo when he died on 15 April 1989.

Hu had nonetheless become an icon to those Chinese supporting democracy and reform. Two days after his death, vigils and protests began that were to culminate in the Tiananmen demonstrations that were ruthlessly crushed on Deng's order on 4 June of that year. One of the political casualties of the crackdown was Zhao, who not only lost the general-secretary's post but, unlike Hu, was consigned to political disgrace and virtual house arrest.

Why Honor Hu Now?

Because of this politically-charged background, the decision of the current CCP leadership under the relatively new General-Secretary Hu Jintao (no relation) to honor Hu Yaobang must not have come easily. Pundits in China and abroad have pointed to a variety of possible reasons for the risky move, most of which have to do with Hu Jintao's alleged interest in shoring up his own position by linking himself not just to his immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, but also to Hu Yaobang. Some observers note that both Hus had their power base in the CCP Youth League, and that Hu Yaobang helped Hu Jintao earlier in his political career. Others have suggested that the current general-secretary is anxious to launch reforms of his own aimed at bridging the gaps between rich and poor classes and regions and might be interested in tying his name to that of a famous reformist predecessor in an effort to shed the image of being a colorless hard-liner.

Whatever the case may be, the decision to honor Hu Yaobang even in an officially sponsored and orchestrated manner runs the risk of raising embarrassing questions from the party's past. These include not only the nature and speed of economic and even political reforms, but also the legacies of Deng and Zhao. And there remains the most delicate matter of all, namely Tiananmen, a discussion of which could easily help call into question the CCP's continuing legitimacy amid growing social and economic inequalities.

Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service recently interviewed Bao Tong, who is a former aide to Zhao and has also lived under virtual house arrest since Tiananmen. Bao said that he is "in favor of commemorating Hu Yaobang, but it should be done with the right intent." Bao stressed that the CCP "should learn a painful lesson from its treatment of [Hu]...and learn once again the art of self-criticism. The spirit of Hu Yaobang should be allowed to permeate China's political and cultural life, to sweep away the suffocating air of tyranny, corruption, and hypocrisy, and create another few million Hu Yaobangs."