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Why Commemorate Hu Yaobang?

Former Chinese leader Hu Yaobang died in disgrace under communist
rule. Sixteen years later, China’s new leaders want to exploit his
reputation to consolidate their power.

On November 18, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a symposium to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the birth of Hu Yaobang (Hu became general secretary of the CCP in 1980 and CCP chairman in 1981. He was then sacked in 1987). However, the initiator and architect of this commemoration, the incumbent Party Secretary Hu Jintao, not related to Hu Yaobang, was noticeably absent. At the same time the symposium was brief, about one hour, and the attendance shrank dramatically. Many analysts argued that Hu Jintao’s absence was a political compromise—Hu used his APEC trip in South Korea to pacify the opposition.

This has posed an interesting question: Why did the CCP commemorate Hu Yaobang? Was the commemoration a matter of formality or did it have a significant meaning to the CCP leadership?

A Controversial CCP Leader

Among few controversial figures in CCP history, Hu Yaobang was an outstanding one. On the one hand, he was viewed as a civilized leader and one that was inclined toward reform after the death of Mao Zedong. Hu was widely recognized for his sympathy for the 1986 student movement and his role in reinstating millions of Chinese who were purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement as well as the catastrophic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

On the other hand, for the last 16 years Hu Yaobang had been under criticism by the CCP for his indirect encouragement of challenges to the communist system. Hu was forced to resign in 1987 for his leaning toward "Western, bourgeois" principles of democracy following the 1986 student movement. Hu’s sudden death in 1989 prompted the large-scale Tiananmen Square protests that led to the June 4 Tiananmen Massacre. The ambivalence that Deng Xiaoping held toward Hu was legendary. Evidence showed that Hu’s involuntary resignation was a plot by Deng to remove Hu as a deviator from the conservative CCP lines.

It is not difficult to see that the controversy around Hu came from an irony: As a CCP leader Hu was supposed to regulate the CCP by CCP principles; on the contrary, he took the lead to break CCP principles to what was viewed by the CCP collective leadership as an unbearable peak. It was exactly this "violation" of CCP lines that won him popularity as a civilized leader.

Political Reasons to Reinstate Hu

Hu Yaobang’s name has become a taboo since his death in 1989. Any mention of Hu could elicit unforeseeable consequences. Then why did Hu Jintao, the current CCP chief bother to run the risk of commemorating Hu Yaobang? Why did reinstating Hu Yaobang matter to Hu Jintao?
Some argued that Hu Jintao was repaying Hu Yaobang for the latter’s political favor because Hu Yaobang had helped promote Hu Jintao. A careful examination of Hu Jintao’s political career showed that the two men had a working relationship, but no close personal friendship. Hu Jintao had worked his way up the CCP ladder and proved himself a master of playing CCP internal power games. A seasoned CCP bureaucrat, Hu would never risk his political career by promoting a disputable figure such as Hu Yaobang. Hu Jintao’s decision was an act of political expediency.

There were two main reasons for Hu Jintao to reinstate Hu Yaobang’s reputation. First, Hu Jintao attempted to utilize Hu’s popularity to save the CCP from disintegration. Since the end of 2004, there has been an unprecedented growing movement among CCP members to withdraw from the Party. The movement was a combined result of long-time CCP corruption, its brutalities and killing of the Chinese people, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the public. To save the CCP from being abandoned, Hu Jintao tried various measures, such as launching "the movement to maintain the advanced nature of the CCP members" and adopting a slogan of "being kind and closer to the people." However, none worked effectively. Since the aura of a civilized leader such as Hu Yaobang could be attractive to people inside and outside the CCP, Hu Jintao gambled on Hu Yaobang’s esteem in saving the CCP though much of Hu Yaobang’s liberal characteristics could adversely be a double-edged sword against the CCP itself. Hu Jintao’s concern about Hu Yaobang’s liberal inclination partially explained why he conducted the reinstatement half-heartedly.

Secondly, Hu Jintao tried to use Hu’s reputation to consolidate his power base. The rise of Hu Jintao was based on Deng Xiaoping’s nomination in 1992. Jiang Zemin, the retired CCP chief, was quite jealous of Hu’s strong endorsement by Deng and never stopped in finding fault with Hu. In countering Jiang’s residual yet looming influence, Hu put forward a slogan of being "more kind and closer to the people." Many mistook Hu’s slogan as a symbol of political liberalization. In fact Hu was to seek popular support in his power struggle against Jiang, as Hu did not have many personal supporters within the top levels. As a matter of fact, Hu rejected ideas for political change and pursued a sustained crackdown on popular demands, including shutting down the liberal newspapers and suppressing religious groups. Hu thus did not win the battle against Jiang on popular support. Hu also tried to encroach on Jiang’s power base by replacing Jiang’s people with his protégés. However, it took time for this to take effect. Hu Yaobang once reinstated millions of cadres and many of them are at high levels. By reinstating Hu Yaobang, Hu Jintao planned on winning over the supporters of Hu Yaobang, thus speeding up the power consolidation.

Internal Power Politics on Reinstating Hu

Contrary to the popular rumor that Premier Wen Jiabao was among the opponents of the reinstatement of Hu Yaobang, Wen twice supported Hu Jintao’s proposal to reinstate Hu Yaobang in the March and August 2005 meetings of the CCP Political Bureau Standing Committee members. It was Jiang Zemin who wrote a letter to the Political Bureau, in which he strongly accused Hu Jintao of violating Deng’s decision to oust Hu Yaobang.
Hu Jintao’s absence at the symposium to commemorate Hu Yaobang was a calculated political stratagem, using his trip to attend the APEC meeting in South Korea to come to terms with the opposition. As a result, Jiang’s protégé Vice-President Zeng Qinghong addressed the event and Wu Guanzheng, Secretary of the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, presided over the commemoration. Zeng’s speech on evaluating Hu Yaobang largely echoed the official CCP conclusion on Hu.

Leading to Democratization? Hardly

What Hu Jintao did was draw a line: reinstate Hu Yaobang, but not Zhao Ziyang. (Zhao succeeded Hu as general secretary of the CCP and was expelled from the Party in 1989.)

There are some key differences between Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Zhao went further beyond the CCP lines than Hu did by claiming he gave up the proletariat dictatorship. Zhao even talked about a multi-party system, something that Hu never did. More importantly, Zhao never admitted that he had committed any mistake in dealing with the student protests while Hu involuntarily admitted his "mistakes."

Given the differences, by drawing a line between the two men, Hu Jintao was sending a clear message to the public: the CCP has no intention and has made no movement to reverse its verdicts on the 1989 Tiananmen Protest and Zhao Ziyang who supported the student protesters. It is thus not far-fetched to conclude that restoring the stature of the late Hu is unlikely to lead to a democratic political change.

Dong Li holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University. He is a China specialist who provides news analysis for New Tang Dynasty Television based in New York City.