Hu Yaobang's pilgrims remember reform efforts in lead-up to Tiananmen tragedy

25 years after the death of Hu Yaobang, those who remember his reform efforts in the lead-up to the Tiananmen tragedy travel far to honour him

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 7:53am

Ma Jijun, an accountant from Shengzhou in Zhejiang province, bowed three times in front of the triangular tombstone before laying at its base a clutch of daisies.

He had travelled 650 kilometres to Gongqingcheng, in Jiangxi, for Ching Ming, the grave-sweeping festival, to honour Hu Yaobang, the late party general secretary whose life and death transformed China.

"He was the greatest man I knew and he influenced me my whole life," said Ma, tears welling.

Ma journeyed there as he head to Beijing on April 22, 1989. Then he had borrowed 400 yuan to be in the capital to join long lines of mourners who watched a hearse bearing the former Communist Party leader - the country's greatest hope for democracy - motor down the long, broad stretch of Changan Avenue.

"I couldn't help crying and respecting him when I heard his socks had several holes when he died and he had left no assets to his children," Ma recalled. "How many state leaders in history are as clean as that?"

Watch: 25 years on, China still remembers former party chairman Hu Yaobang

Ma would say nothing about the cataclysmic events that unfolded the day the hearse passed: that 50,000 people, mostly students, had marched to Tiananmen Square. That they seethed because party leaders had forced Hu to resign, halting his efforts to open China's markets and urge scholars to discuss democracy.

In weeks, the crowds grew, chanting for free speech, a free press, for crooked governance to end. Up to a million people massed in protest in Tiananmen Square that spring.

Then tanks arrived, and so did bullets. The military opened fire on June 4. Hundreds died. And China changed forever.

Reformers inside and outside the party see Hu as a symbol of meaningful political reform that has been largely stalled since his death. Conservatives say Hu's tolerance of demands for greater political freedom was behind nationwide student demonstrations in 1985 and 1986, which culminated in the pro-democracy movement in 1989. They fear any endorsement of Hu's policies would trigger a new mass movement demanding freedom and democracy. Thus the public commemoration of Hu's legacy was largely banned until 2005, when the leadership held a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of his birth at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which then- premier Wen Jiabao attended.

Today mourners are still reluctant to talk in public about his links with the June 4 movement.

"We know why he stepped down," said a retired doctor from Yangzhou, Jiangsu, who stopped to pay her respects. "We know why he died so young and of a heart attack. We know people in the party didn't like him. We know what happened in Tiananmen. We just don't talk about it. It's all politics."

Each year at Ching Ming, Ni Xinhua visits Hu's tomb in Gongqingcheng. The city's name translates as Youth League City, and is a place that Hu helped establish in 1955.

Ni says he met Hu there 59 years ago, in a shed nestled amid wilderness. Ni was one of the 20 young men and women from Shanghai who had answered a call by Hu, then general secretary of China's Youth League, to go where they were needed.

Ni arrived to clear land for crops in October 1955. Forty days later, Hu visited the group. Dressed in simple clothes, he joined the youth for a meal of porridge and fried peppers inside the shed, said Ni, now 74.

"We said we were very happy that the shed could withstand rain, and long live the shed," Ni said. "But he said, 'No, you can only stay in the shed for three years at most, and you need to live in a house with lights and a telephone. You should build this into a modern place.'"

Ni stayed, and saw Hu again when, as party general secretary, he visited in 1984 and praised the pioneers for their good work. "He encouraged us to build the city into a 'little Shanghai'," he said.

Hu was initially buried in Beijing alongside other party officials. But his widow, Li Zhao, petitioned the government to bury Hu's ashes in the distant city in 1990, according to a memoir by Hu's eldest son.

The tomb was built on a hill surrounded by pines overlooking a lake. It is a popular place for strollers, students and couples, but especially the elderly, including those Hu helped. He is credited with helping to clear the names of more than three million people who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

Fang Hongqing, 79, is one.

Fang travelled from Ningbo, Zhejiang, to place a bouquet at Hu's tomb. Fang had been branded an "anti-revolutionary" while working in a coal mine in Jiangxi during the Cultural Revolution.

"He was a clean official and he stood high in my heart," Fang said.

Ma, who had attended Hu's funeral, said it saddened him that most youth wouldn't understand why he would travel so far to visit an old man's grave. But some young people did arrive.

Chen Songfu, a 30-year-old office worker from Nanchang , said he visited the cemetery because his parents told him that the man buried there had been a great state leader. He wasn't clear what had happened to the dead guy.

Scholars are clearer about Hu's legacy. As party chairman in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, Hu pushed the government to open its political system and embrace aspects of a market economy, shifting away from traditional Marxism. Outspoken and engaging, Hu openly criticised Mao Zedong and prodded intellectuals to raise controversial topics such as democracy. Pu Xingzu, a politics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Hu's outspokenness "started the process of correcting the mistakes by Mao".

Yang Jisheng, a veteran journalist and historian, said Hu's resignation in 1987 showed his opposition to the prevailing system. "That was his own way of moving democracy forward."

Mostly, those who ventured to the grave site came to express their admiration.

A businessman from Beijing, who declined to be named, said that when he was a central government employee in the 1980s he once met Hu. He said Hu was missed because he was a role model. "He had flaws. He would be emotional and not discreet sometimes, but he would correct it later. I respect most that he was very straightforward and truthful. There had been opposition, yet he fought through it."

Wu Youfeng, 55, drove with 10 other families and friends from Beijing to leave a flower basket.

"We went through that period and we knew what happened," Wu said. "He was not afraid of speaking the true words, and for that we always admired him."

Additional reporting by Cary Huang


Life Events:

1915: Born November 20 in Liuyang county, Hunan

1929: Joins Communist Youth League of China

1934: Takes part in the Long March

1937: Directs political department of Yanan Anti-Japanese Military and Political University

1949: Chairs north Sichuan party committee after establishment of People's Republic of China

1952: Chairs Communist Youth League of China as general secretary of its central committee

1966: Criticised by Mao Zedong for his management of Youth League, falling victim to Mao's Cultural Revolution.

1966 to 1968: Performs manual labour

1969: Voted out of party's central committee after refusing to admit mistakes and sent to perform manual labour again

1975: Mao Zedong approves Deng Xiaoping's proposal that Hu chair party committee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

1977: Made deputy president of Party School under Central Committee

1977: Chairs organisation department of party. Helps exonerate more than three million persecuted in political movements over previous 30 years

1978: Contributes slogan "practice is sole criterion for testing truth" to editorial of internal party publication. Essay promotes liberal thought in the late 1970s

1978: Elected to Politburo and named chief of party's propaganda department

1980: Elected general secretary of central committee of party

1981: Says Mao Zedong made mistakes in his later years

1981: Replaces Mao Zedong's successor Hua Guofeng as chairman of central committee

1985: Gives interview to Hong Kong journalist Lu Keng. His comments about other leaders reportedly upset Deng Xiaoping and ultimately lead to Hu's downfall

1987: Forced to step down as party chief after student protests in December 1986 following seven-and-a-half day "democratic life meeting". Dozens of leaders accuse Hu of allowing "bourgeois liberalism" to spread

April 15, 1989: Dies of heart attack. Peking University students cover campus with posters calling for democracy

April 17, 1989: Protests begin in Tiananmen Square

April 22, 1989: Hu's funeral held in the Great Hall. Thousands of students gather in Tiananmen Square to mourn. Protest draws more than a million, who condemn corruption, official profiteering and nepotism among senior leaders

June 4, 1989: Soldiers fire on protesters, killing hundreds

1990: Hu's ashes entombed at Gongqingcheng, Jiangxi, a city he helped create

Andrea Chen