Praise for late Chinese president Hu Yaobang a sign that reforms will stay on right track

Nation’s current leader can learn from policies that helped create a more harmonious society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 1:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 5:11pm

For many years the late liberal reformist leader Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦 ), whose death following his purging 26 years ago was linked to the June 4 protest, remained a taboo topic. Ten years ago, two members of the Politburo Standing Committee attended a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of his birth and sang his praises. Last week, all seven members of the Standing Committee turned out for his centenary. President Xi Jinping (習近平 ) delivered a eulogy praising Hu’s contribution to the Communist Party and his values that resonated with Xi’s campaign against corruption and resistance to reforms. It fell short of the full rehabilitation Hu’s diehard supporters wished for. But there are conclusions to be drawn and nuances to be read into it.

What set the commemoration apart was Hu’s rise and fall in the party. One of the founders of the People’s Republic, he was leader of the liberal wing. After paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) appointed him party secretary, he did much to put China on the right path after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, including the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of purged officials. Many families who have since become powerful have Hu to thank. There are also officials and intellectuals who still recall his time as the most liberal in China. This contributed to his downfall and the June 4 crackdown. He was revered as a long-time leader of the Communist Party Youth League, also the power base of former president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). After the latter came to power in 2002, talk of Hu Yaobang ceased to be taboo. Xi’s praise last week stopped short of mentioning June 4 or why he was purged. Nonetheless, to many it is seen as very positive for intellectuals and liberal-minded people. Xi’s tribute to Hu’s “firm belief, idealism and high morals” holds him up as an example to powerful families and interests who may not be on the same page as the president.

Hopes for Hu’s full rehabilitation have to be weighed against the political nuances. Deng made Jiang Zemin (江澤民) party leader after June 4. Jiang, now retired , therefore owes his legitimacy to Deng. Full rehabilitation of Hu has implications for assessment of Deng’s judgment and the official verdict on the June 4 crackdown that may not be entertained while Jiang remains on the scene. Meanwhile, the praise for Hu is to be welcomed as a signal of the leadership’s determination to press on with reform. While the debate is about economic reforms, it should not be forgotten that Hu’s liberal-mindedness also helped create a more harmonious atmosphere that China could do with more of now. The nation’s leaders should learn from that.