Hu Yaobang

Hu, Wen - and why?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 April, 2010, 12:00am

Is there life after death? In China, there certainly is. In traditional China, the bodies of top officials were sometimes dug up and publicly flogged, which gave rise to the expression bian shi, or whipping the corpse. I well recall that when premier Zhou Enlai was cremated in 1976, a highly respected China watcher commented sagely that the wily premier had seen to it that he could not be subjected to posthumous whipping.

Others were posthumously promoted, including my ancestor Qin Guan who, 57 years after his death in 1100, was given the title Scholar of the Longtu Pavilion.

These thoughts stemmed from the surprising news that Premier Wen Jiabao had just published an emotional article in People's Daily on the 21st anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist party leader ousted in 1987 in large part because he refused to crack down on student protesters.

While Hu had been allowed to remain in the Politburo after being removed as general secretary, he had been effectively disgraced. But now, Wen's article seems to be a big step towards his political rehabilitation. Just what this means to present-day politics is disputed among China watchers. Some think Wen and President Hu Jintao, who was also a protegee of the older Hu (the two are not related) have won a struggle against more conservative figures. Others suspect that Wen is in trouble and is rallying Hu Yaobang's supporters to his side.

All China watchers agree that it is a highly significant event, although they differ on why. After Deng Xiaoping emerged as China's new strongman in the wake of the death of Mao Zedong , he had two key lieutenants, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Both were instrumental in removing from power Hua Guofeng, the man designated by Mao as his successor. Hua was both party chairman and premier. Deng manoeuvred the situation so that Zhao replaced Hua as premier and Hu Yaobang succeeded Hua as party leader. Hua lived on in obscurity but survived both men, and died in 2008.

Foreign correspondents based in Beijing used to joke about the fact that both Deng and Hu Yaobang were short in stature. The late David Bonavia joked that the diminutive Deng got along so well with his trusted aide because they 'saw eye to eye'.

Hu was known for saying outrageous things, such as that Chinese should give up chopsticks and eat with knives and forks. He offended Deng by telling the older man to his face that it was time for him to retire.

In the early 1980s, however, foreign journalists were not privy to the relationship between leaders. We were, however, able to report what people were saying about them. At the time, there were three key officials named Hu. Besides Hu Yaobang, there was Hu Qiaomu, president of the newly formed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the party's leading theoretician, and Hu Jiwei, chief editor of the People's Daily. The word 'hu', incidentally, also means nonsense.

I evidently offended the powers that be by reporting towards the end of 1980 that one joke making the rounds was that general secretary Hu Yaobang talked nonsense, Hu Qiaomu wrote nonsense and Hu Jiwei concocted nonsense. I was called in by the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down for insulting China's leaders.

The three men turned out very differently. Hu Yaobang rose to the top only to be brought low because he was too liberal. The conservative Hu Qiaomu was instrumental in bringing about his namesake's downfall. All three were involved in the Tiananmen Square events of 1989. Hu Yaobang's death on April 15 provided the excuse for students to gather in the square to mourn him.

Hu Jiwei attempted to convene an emergency session of the National People's Congress to challenge the imposition of martial law. Hu Qiaomu applauded the crackdown.

Hu Jiwei is the only one still alive. The nonagenarian, shielded by his status as party elder, is espousing liberal causes, including urging the release of Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for 11 years on subversion charges. Now, that's not nonsense.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator