Hu Yaobang

Revolutionary in his time

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am


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'Jiabao, I give you a task. Go into the villages outside the city and do investigation and research. Remember, you must stay away from the local government.'

It could have been a news editor briefing a journalist covering a story in a village in China - but this was Hu Yaobang, then general secretary of the Communist Party, briefing one of his assistants - and now premier - Wen Jiabao, during a tour of the southwest province of Guizhou.

Wen told the anecdote as part of a flood of memoirs of the man who led the party from 1982 until January 1987, when Deng Xiaoping forced him to resign. Public mourning after his death of a heart attack on April 15, 1989 led to weeks of student-led protest that resulted in the military crackdown on June 4.

The most important document is Why China should reform - Remembering my father Hu Yaobang, written by his son Hu Deping, a historian. It was published last month by the People's Publishing House in Beijing.

Hu Deping wants to leave an account of his father's life and put him on the right side of history.

'He hoped that every Chinese could enjoy the freedoms allowed to him under the constitution,' Hu Deping said. 'He spoke of freedom of speech and rule of law. He said that the law should enable people to see who is being protected and that, in normal times, private rights should not be infringed. He rarely spoke about proletarian dictatorship and talked constantly of democracy and the rule of law.'

But speaking at the National People's Congress on March 10 was another voice. Wu Bangguo, chairman of its standing committee, said that the party would retain its monopoly on power, would not allow opposition parties, a separation of powers or a federal system. With a change in the system, the state could sink into the abyss of internal disorder, Wu said.

The person Hu Deping describes was a different kind of leader - joyful and sociable, a man who liked singing, dancing and jokes. He liked debates and arguments and encouraged people to speak their mind and disagree with him.

Because he knew they did not tell the truth, Hu Yaobang was suspicious of the officials around him. As leader of the Communist Youth League, he worked at home and invited people to meetings and meals there. During tours outside Beijing, he would switch his itinerary at the last minute, to try to talk to ordinary people without the presence of local officials.

Like other party leaders, he was dismissed during the Cultural Revolution and spent nearly 10 years doing farm work, repairing roads and reading books at home. After returning to power in 1977, he aggressively moved to correct the injustices against victims like himself; over the next decade, under his leadership, three million people were rehabilitated.

He was an early advocate of private enterprise and, in April 1985, approved one of the first private business licences, to a man in Dalian called Jiang Wei, who needed official permission to set up a joint company with a Hong Kong businessman.

Hu Deping has published the book now as the legacy of his father, to present him as a man open and willing to listen to what people told him, be they officials, farmers or petitioners with a grievance: the leader of a party with a monopoly on power, yes, but one with a human face, ready to change and adapt.

He started to criticise the Soviet-style planned economy as early as 1956, 23 years before the party gave it up. In 1969, he wrote to Mao Zedong to ask him why it was necessary to continue the 'class struggle' for a long time, instead of building the economy.

In 1975, he encouraged entrepreneurs and was an enthusiastic supporter of Shenzhen and the other special economic zones, as incubators to try things which, if successful, could be applied elsewhere. It was he in May 1978 who helped devised the slogan, 'practice is the sole criterion for testing truth' - a wonderful formula to do new things and avoid attacks from left-wing hardliners.

He was an attractive personality who made light of his size. He was one of the youngest and lightest people to complete the Long March, arriving in Yanan when he was under 20 and weighed under 35kg.

He was a communist leader with humour and a human face. He deserves substantial credit for the reforms of the past 30 years and left lessons for the leaders of today to follow.

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong