Remembering Chinese party leader Hu Yaobang still no easy task

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 1:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

On the anniversary of Hu Yaobang's death, thousands of Chinese quietly remembered the party leader who many thought was pushing for further political reform in the 1980s before the Tiananmen crackdown. 

The 24th commemoration on Monday is the first under President Xi Jinping, whose father worked under Hu Yaobang.

Hu has been credited with spurring economic reforms after the Cultural Revolution, the rehabilitation of thousands persecuted during the tumultuous decade and a drive towards further political reforms.

He had suffered a heart attack during a Politburo meeting on the morning of April 15, 1989, and died hours later. His death led to unprecedented protests by students in Tiananmen Square, and throughout the country, who believed Hu had been sidelined for supporting political reforms. The movement was crushed on June 4, and commemorations of his death have since become taboo.

In 2005, the first major public commemoration of Hu's legacy was allowed on occasion of what would have been his 90th birthday. In 2010, then premier Wen Jiabao published a eulogy on Hu in the People's Daily

On Monday, searches for "Hu Yaobang" on Chinese microblogs were blocked. Hundreds of users circumvented the censors by adding a space or candle symbols amid the three Chinese characters of his name.

Eulogies did appear in state-run media and in Hong Kong. Most prominently, a eulogy by Zhou Ruijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Liberation Daily and the People's Daily, appeared in two versions. 

"If Deng Xiaoping was the chief architect for China's reform and opening, then Hu Yaobang deserves to be called its chief engineer," Zhou wrote in a commentary for Hong Kong-based Phoenix news portal, in which he mentioned Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, twice. 

Hu "put his energy into developing democracy within the party, and presided over setting up rules for the party's political life", he wrote. Hu "agreed to legislate the press and advance freedom of expression".

"It is generally accepted that the time Hu Yaobang presided over the party's central work has come to be one of our party's most democratic, most politically orderly and most vibrant moments."

Zhou's eulogy also appeared in Monday's Shanghai-based Liberation Daily. That version kept the references to Xi Jinping's father, but it lacked the comparison to Deng Xiaoping and the reference to freedom of expression.

"As we remember Hu Yaobang, we should, just like him, have the determination to reform and the courage to innovate," he concluded in both eulogies, which have been shared thousands of times on Sina Weibo.

Shortly after Hu's passing and the Tiananmen crackdown, Zhou was part of a group of journalists who called for a continuation of reforms, writing under the pseudonym Huang Fuping in the Liberation Daily.

China Newsweek carried an excerpt from the 2008 book The Story Behind the News by Yang Zhengquan, a former head of China's national radio service, in which Yang described how the news of Hu's death first spread in Hong Kong before it was broadcast in Beijing hours later.

Several news outlets re-published old articles about Hu, including a speech by then vice-president Zeng Qinghong in 2005 on occasion of Hu's 90th birthday and Wen's 2010 article in the People's Daily.

Yanhuang Chunqiu, the mainland's most outspoken political magazine, shared four older articles about Hu on its microblog.

Sohu, a major news portal, created a photo slideshow of Hu with headlines such as "determined to reform" and "in contact with the people".

The relatively open commemoration came only months after a statue of Hu was unveiled on Dachen island in Zhejiang. Hu had visited the island when he was at the helm of the Communist Youth League in the 1950s.