Hu Yaobang
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Hu Yaobang reviews a military parade in Beijing in 1981. Photo: AP

State media offer rare praise for reformer Hu Yaobang

Ex-Communist Party chief who was purged in 1987 and whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen protests is commemorated by state media

Hu Yaobang

The mainland mourned late reformist leader Hu Yaobang yesterday on the 24th anniversary of his death - the first time he has been commemorated under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, whose father was his ally.

A party newspaper and state news websites published articles commemorating him, and ordinary citizens turned up at his former home to pay tribute.

The former Communist Party chief, who was purged in 1987, remains a relatively sensitive figure as his sudden death in 1989 sparked commemorative activities that later turned into the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. The protests ended in the bloody June 4 crackdown.

Hu was an ally of Xi Zhongxun , late father of Xi Jinping, and a respected communist revolutionary. When Hu was forced by conservative party elders to resign for condoning widespread student protests the year before, the elder Xi stood by him.

Since Xi Jinping assumed power as party chief in November, there has been speculation over whether he will follow in his father's footsteps and embrace liberal reforms. Analysts say that by showing affection for Hu, people were hoping for signs of Xi's support for reform.

Hu was fondly remembered by many for spearheading economic and political reforms, as well as his rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands wrongly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, including the elder Xi.

Although the party officially restored Hu's reputation posthumously in 2005 on the 90th anniversary of his birth, public mention of him remained rare and former premier Wen Jiabao made headlines when published an article on his eulogy of Hu in 2010.

The Shanghai-based yesterday published an article by Zhou Ruijin , its former editor-in-chief, praising Hu for pushing reforms against all odds. While Hu faced ideological obstacles in the 1980s, Xi is up against "even bigger, more comprehensive and deeper conflicts and vested interests", it said.

"When we have reached the historical stage where we need to give reform a strong push, it is very meaningful and timely to commemorate [Hu] Yaobang now," Zhou wrote.

"As we remember Hu Yaobang, we should, just like him, have the determination to reform and the courage to innovate."

In Zhou's commentary for the Hong Kong-based Phoenix News website, he went further, saying: "If Deng Xiaoping was the chief architect of China's reform and opening, then Hu Yaobang deserves to be called its chief engineer."

Zhou also praised Hu's endorsement of Xi Zhongxun's work in liberalising the economy in Guangdong in the late '70s.

Hu's son, Hu Dehua , also paid tribute to his father, saying he hoped the new leadership would show similar courage in carrying out political reform despite facing bigger obstacles.

"Today, you need even greater wisdom, courage, magnanimity and compassion," he told the .

"We hope they will continue to reform and liberalise." Hu Dehua said many constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and publication, had not been granted to citizens, and there were no laws to safeguard those rights. "We hope the leaders will solve these problems, otherwise they would become even more serious."

Independent political commentator Chen Ziming said it was unlikely that Zhou's article was backed by Xi and there had been no evidence that the president supported political reform. He said it was probably state media testing the tolerance of Hu's legacy "to see whether they could go one step further".

Veteran journalist and historian Yang Jisheng also noted that Xi had not mentioned political reform since he became party chief, although he emphasised the importance of adhering to Marxism and Mao's thoughts.

Scores of Hu supporters tried to pay tribute to him at his former home in Beijing yesterday. Several managed to get in, while dozens were turned away.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Rare praise for reformer Hu Yaobang