The Historical Record for April 15, 2009: The Death of Hu Yaobang

Hu Yaobang walking in Zhongnanhai

Today marks 20 years since the death of Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the CCP and one of Deng Xiaoping’s key allies in inaugurating the Reform and Opening Era.  Hu was a fascinating figure, he was one of the youngest survivors (barely) of the Long March and a long-serving political cadre whose own career tracked the vicissitudes of his patron Deng.  He was persecuted and purged during the Cultural Revolution only to be rehabilitated and named as Deng’s hand-picked choice to bump Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, off the political stage.  Not surprisingly perhaps, Hu was not Mao’s greatest fan.  Once asked by a journalist which aspects of “Mao Zedong Thought” might help China to modernize, Hu responded: “None, I think.”

He also once  rather infamously suggested that the Chinese would be better off hygiene-wise if they abandoned chopsticks in favor of Western forks and spoons.  Let’s just say the idea didn’t stick.

Carry forward the revolutionary cause and forge ahead into the future

But it was his support of economic liberalization for which, in life anyway, Hu is best remembered.  He was a staunch proponent of opening the economy as rapidly as possible and scrapping Maoist dogma in favor of pragmatic steps to develop the country.  Unfortunately, his views and his outspokenness would make him a convenient fall guy for the Party when demands for greater political freedoms spilled out into the streets in 1985 and 1986.  Hu was stripped of his position as General Secretary in January, 1987, replaced on an interim basis by Zhao Ziyang.   In hindsight, and from the perspective of Deng Xiaoping, this was a bit like deciding that Britney was too medicated to drive, and asking Brit’s good friend Lindsay Lohan to take the keys and make sure everyone gets home safe.  But I digress…

As was the case in the death of another popular leader 13 years earlier, people reacted to the news of Hu’s passing with spontaneous demonstrations of mourning and grief.  The outpouring of public sympathy for Hu caught the CCP leadership a little off guard, plans for a low-key memorial to the ousted leader were replaced with a more elaborate ceremony in the Great Hall of the People, presided over by State President Yang Shangku and with Zhao Ziyang delivering the eulogy.  Outside, however, the mourning continued, and the number of people who gathered in places around Beijing to publicly air their grief grew more numerous and more raucous.   The official line is that among the masses of people who gathered to mourn, there was a tiny handful of agitators who seized the opportunity to launch an attack on the Communist Party, the leadership, and the Socialist system.

(Ah, the eternal bogeyman of ‘agitators.’  Reminds me of Norman Fell’s stairwell inquisition of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.  But, once again, I digress…)

On April 22, the official day of mourning for Hu Yaobang, a group of students slipped past the cordons and took up positions inside Tiananmen Square.  They knelt before the Great Hall of the People, beseeching the leadership to come out and hear their concerns.  By the end of the month, others had joined them, and student-led strikes and demonstrations erupted at campuses throughout the country.  But that’s a story for another post.

Hu’s legacy has been a tricky one for the CCP.  When he died, the People’s Daily lauded him as a “great leader,” but one “who had made mistakes.”  On the 90th anniversary of Hu’s birth in 2005, the CCP leadership, after considerable internal debate, finally decided to rehabilitate Hu.  Opponents of the decision including, perhaps surprisingly, Wen Jiabao, feared that any movement towards rehabilitating a figure so closely associated with June 4 might give the mistaken impression that the Party was contemplating a historical reassessment.  Nevertheless, in  an act that was as much about political horse-trading as it was about history, the Central Committee voted in 2005 to bring Hu Yaobang, posthumously at least, back into the fold.

There’s going to be a lot written between now and June about the Beijing Spring of 1989, and the events of June Fourth  continue to be a highly-sensitive subject with the leadership.  I suspect, however, that within the next few years as key figures who were either involved with the suppression of the demonstrations, or rose to power in the aftermath, take their journey to meet Marx, there may well be a new verdict on the incident.  But I don’t think it will happen soon, and we’re more likely to see Mrs. Hu Jintao doing body shots at the Playboy Mansion with Russell Crowe and the guys from Three Six Mafia than any softening of the Party’s grip on historical memory in this troublesome year of anniversaries.

More on this in the weeks to come…

UPDATE: Writer EugeneZ has posted a  fascinating personal account of the days and weeks following Hu Yaobang’s death and the events of the Spring of 1989 at Blogging for China.

UPDATE II: The CCP, all to aware of the significance of today, has begun the process of detaining/questioning people they feel might cause trouble in the months ahead.

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Sources and Texts:

Hu Yaobang, Ex-Party Chief in China, dies at 73,” New York Times, April 16, 1987

Phillip Pan, “China Plans To Honor A Reformer: Ousted Party Leader’s Death Led to Historic Tiananmen Protests,” Washington Post, September 9, 2005.

Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition. W.W. Norton, 1999.

(Also, for those who like to keep score, this marks post #600 at The Granite Studio which coincides nicely with another milestone passed yesterday, the 200,000th hit on the site.  Pretty crazy for a hobby.)

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  • http://foundinchina.com/ stuart

    Hu Yaobang is one of those guys that dispels the myth that zhongnanhai has only ever been home to, power-hungry despots with zero tolerance for change or dissent.

    Peking Duck recently opened my eyes to Hessler’s 1999 article:

    “PERHAPS the most hopeful moment in recent Han-Tibetan relations came shortly after 1980, when the Chinese Party Secretary, Hu Yaobang, went on a fact-finding mission to Tibet and returned with severe criticisms of Chinese policies. He advocated a two-pronged solution: Chinese investment was needed to spur economic growth in Tibet, but at the same time the Han should be more respectful of Tibetan culture. Cadres needed to learn Tibetan; the language should be used in government offices serving the public; and religion should be allowed more freedom.”

    I’m not trying to turn this into a Tibetan free for all, I just think that if the Party had possessed the courage to listen to people like Hu Yaobang back then China would be a stronger, fairer, and more respected country today.

    On a side note, any idea where Hu Yaobang was laid to rest? I was just thinking about the recent beating dished out to guy who tried to pay his respects to Zhao Ziyang.

  • http://www.standoffattiananmen.com Eddie Cheng

    Nice write up. I have also posted a profile at my blog site: Standoff at Tiananmen, where I will also start a daily chronological recount of the 1989 movement.

    To answer stuart’s question, Hu Yaobang’s ash was buried at the Communist Youth City (Gongqingcheng) in Jiangxi province.

  • JXie

    There were 2 different student movements in 1985 and 1986. The one in 1985 was started in Peking University. It was anti-Japanese in nature. FWIW, Hu then was perceived as a pro-Japanese politician. The 1986 one was starting in University of Science & Technology of China, located in Hefei, Anhui. It was started by students who were unsatisfied by the lack of any knowledge to the names on their NPC representative ballots. That one eventually cost Hu’s job.

  • http://foundinchina.com/ stuart

    “Hu Yaobang’s ash was buried at the Communist Youth City (Gongqingcheng) in Jiangxi province.”

    Thanks Eddy. Wonder if any plain-clothed goons are on guard there today.

  • cc

    It’s too simplistic to compare the public reaction to Hu’s death with the case 13 years before that, imo. The make of the “public” was quite different.

  • Tom

    stuart, there actually were a lot of liberal people in the old Chinese Communist Party. In the early days, the CCP served as an outlet for all sorts of leftist sentiment that was opposed to KMT policies. The party of 1950 was more liberal than the one of 1980, in which many of the liberal members had been purged during the Cultural Revolution.

    The second half of the infamous Hu Yaobang chopsticks quote always gets left out. It’s like the Cornelius Vanderbilt quote from the 19th century: “The public be damned!”, which was taken completely out of context.

    What Hu Yaobang said: “We should prepare more knives and forks, buy more plates and sit around the table to eat Chinese food in the Western style, that is, each from his own plate.” (Source: the Nicholas Kristof article that you cite, published in 1989, of course, not 1987.) In other words, it’s the sharing of common dishes, not the chopsticks per se, that causes the hygiene issue.

    Also see chopsticks article by Debra Weiner in the New York Times, December 26, 1984. Followed by the Letter to the Editor on January 23, 1985, in which a Chinese-American sensibly points out that you could solve the hygiene problem by simply using serving spoons for the common dishes.

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  • shane9219

    “there actually were a lot of liberal people in the old Chinese Communist Party”

    Yes in China, but not in CCP. The liberals will not gain any major influcence in China, not in my life time. You can see that many student participants of 1989 event steadfastly refuse to come out and renounce CCP and Chinese authority, despite all the excitement from the West.

    Why? Modern China was founded on the consensus that China should eventually stand in the world by her own, not “kowow” to the West.

    Now, the West is at a cross-road. It can accept China as is and give China what is due, or continue to muddle the water and be disillusional.

  • shane9219

    Intense stand-off between students and authorities occured in many places .

    In US, the May 4 massacre at Kent State Univ. was one of them.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    Shane9219,

    And it’s always wrong when the state uses violence to suppress dissenting views. Whether in Ohio or Beijing.

    I’m actually working on a post for next month using Kent State as a departure…perhaps it’s because I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young lately…

    “What if you knew her, and…
    found her dead on the ground…”

    It’s also David Crosby yelping “Why?!?” in the background that gets me.

    It’s probably safe to say so long as Classic Rock format radio exists, people will always remember Kent State.

  • shane9219

    Jeremiah:

    Nobody condone a bloody event of any kind, I would think. However, it just amazes me that people in the west continue to facinate the 1989 event in China, while keep silent on many other similar ones happened in their land. It’s just hypercritical.

    West’s facination and persistence over 1989 event is mostly for their own sack, not necessary for the benefit of China. Because of such selfish thinking, those people will continue to feel disillusional about China.

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    This is kind of an old argument we’ve had before, but what the hell…

    I don’t know how silent people are about Kent State…there’s been numerous books, articles, movies, and documentaries done on the massacre. I remember during the 20th anniversary of Kent State, almost all the major newspapers and news outlets ran features recalling the horrific events of that day. On the campus of Kent State there are several memorials to the victims of the shootings…and did I mention Neil Young?

    I’m willing to bet that there will be no memorials to the victims of June 4th erected on the 20th anniversary (as was done in 1990 in Ohio) and no documentaries on state television telling the story from the perspective of the victims and critically analyzing the government’s response. Peking University will not sponsor a symposium in which survivors and witnesses of the tragedy recall their tale while professors of history and political science debate the long-term implications, and Neil Young will not get to play a solo acoustic concert with Cui Jian opening.

    Just a guess.

  • shane9219

    Jeremiah:

    I am sure 1989 event will be remembered openly one day in China. But the consensus is not now, becasue people in China still have major work to do …

    One major difference is that May 4th protest by Kent State students was for peace with rational reasons.

    The 1989 event in Beijing got out of hand quickly with mass confusion (demand, goal etc) yet too much emotion.

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    I hope that day comes sooner rather than later. A lot of people would like their lives back and a lot of families and parents, who aren’t getting any younger, need at least a little bit of closure.

  • http://foundinchina.com/ stuart

    “…amazes me that people in the west continue to facinate the 1989 event in China, while keep silent on many other similar ones happened in their land…”

    So much diatribe to choose from, Shane. Jeremiah has already addressed this example in a very polite way. I’d have gone with, ‘your arguments full of crap’, but each to their own.

    The problem with your take on the west’s ‘fasination’ with all things 6/4 is that it reflects a conceptualization of the incident that is pre-packaged by your governments propaganda department. Which leads you to say…

    “But the consensus is not now, because people in China still have major work to do”

    Consensus? I doubt that. Hong Kong students (bless them) voted 92% last week against your ‘consensus’. See where a little bit of free expression gets you?

    The west’s interest in China’s social and political progress is absolutely reasonable. The continued failure of the Chinese leadership to recognise, discuss, apologise and account for their actions of 20 years ago is an annual litmus test for their perceived level of responsible governance. Thus far, that test has thrown up 19 straight negatives.

    And that’s a bad indicator.

  • shane9219

    Stuart:

    You got that typical finger-pointing in-your-face laughing-others-while-self-naked European arrongance.

    There are many things you can learn better from Jeremiah, as well as Chinese when you are in China.

  • shane9219

    Stuart:

    You also should know that I am speaking of myself being a college student of a major university in 1989, involved and witnessed the entire event.

    Strange thing is that you got so high and hyped for 1989 event today.

  • http://foundinchina.com/ stuart

    Shane, you do yourself no favours with knee-jerk responses. It’s all so CCP:

    “You got that typical finger-pointing in-your-face laughing-others-while-self-naked European arrongance.”

    No; you got that one wrong. Misdirected anger, dear boy.

    “There are many things you can learn better from Jeremiah, as well as Chinese when you are in China.”

    Yes; you’re on the money with that one. There are a few gaps in your own ‘learning’ I suspect, despite your claim of having been a witness to the whole thing.

    “Strange thing is that you got so high and hyped for 1989 event today.”

    Strange? Nanjing ring any bells? Cognitive dissonance anyone?

    It an issue that has not been adequately dealt with by a government (and many citizens) in denial. That same government was pretty hyped itself a couple of weeks ago over ‘serf’s emancipation day’. I’ll leave you to remember that momentous occasion; best give Tiananmen those who aren’t quite so hard-wired.

    If you were really there your account would be interesting; but i doubt that it would be objective.

  • david0fsangabriel

    This today (4/18/09) on Yahoo News:

    Jackie Chan: Chinese people need to be controlled

    Action star Jackie Chan said Saturday he’s not sure if a free society is a good thing for China and that he’s starting to think “we Chinese need to be controlled.”

    “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” Chan said. “I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.”

    Chan added: “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

    Chan’s comments drew applause from a predominantly Chinese audience of business leaders in China’s southern island province of Hainan.

    This, for better or worse, reflects the feelings these days of practically every ordinary Chinese I know.

  • http://foundinchina.com/ stuart

    “This, for better or worse, reflects the feelings these days of practically every ordinary Chinese I know.”

    I think it’s more likely to be a reflection of Chan’s and others’ kowtowing to the party, or a fear of who might be listening. Chan’s comments are absurd.

    Besides, what the hell has recognising 6/4 got to do with an anarchic free-for-all?

  • http://www.gongshangfa.com Rhodo Zeb

    Congrats on your achievement! Nice post too. Thanks for bringing perspective to my largely apolitical Shanghai world.