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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