China's Forgotten Liberal Hero

Hu Yaobang, whose death 25 years ago triggered the Tiananmen Square protests, served China in an era of unprecedented openness. 

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, a senior Chinese politician named Hu Yaobang complained of dizziness at a meeting in Beijing, and asked to be excused. Moments later, he collapsed with a fatal heart attack. The 74-year-old Hu, one of China's most senior leaders just two years before, was dead.

Within days, thousands of Chinese students poured into Beijing's Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu. This, in China, was not unusual; in 1976, a similarly spontaneous demonstration for the just-deceased Premier Zhou Enlai set into motion a series of events that ended the Cultural Revolution. But the mourning for Hu in 1989 was different. This time, as China's leaders debated what to do, the students remained in the square for weeks. And when the international media decamped on the capital—ostensibly to cover Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's historic visit—China's young protesters suddenly got the world's attention.

We all know what happened next. On the night of June 4th, Deng Xiaoping ordered China's military to disperse the protesters by force, orchestrating a massacre that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent citizens in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square. The death of Hu Yaobang, just seven weeks before, had triggered a notorious act of state violence.

Who was Hu Yaobang, and why was he so popular? A protege of Deng Xiaoping, Hu joined the Communist Party at a young age and even participated in the Long March, the legendary 1936 Communist military retreat from Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist forces. Three decades later, however, Hu's fate took a turn for the worse when he became ensnared in the Cultural Revolution. An attempt by Mao Zedong to foment "perpetual revolution" that spiraled out of control, the Cultural Revolution led to the removal of several high-ranking officials deemed insufficiently loyal to China's supreme leader. Purged and banished to the countryside in 1966, Hu remained there for several years, even "eating and sleeping alongside horses and sheep." The experience hardened Hu's views against Mao's cult of personality. His son, Hu Dehua, recounted this exchange he had with his father at the height of the Cultural Revolution, in 1968:

The senior Hu asked his teenage son whether he thought the popular slogan of the era—"Everything we do is for Chairman Mao; All our thoughts are of Chairman Mao; and in all our actions we closely follow and obey Chairman Mao"—was correct.

Having seen it published in state newspapers, the younger Hu said he did not question its veracity. "Can't you use your brains? This is clearly problematic," Hu quoted his father as saying. "Everything we do should be for the people, not for Mao."

The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and following Deng Xiaoping's ascension to power two years later, Hu became one of China's most important officials, named general secretary of the Communist Party in 1981. Then, as now, elite Chinese politics were factionalized, and Hu was a stalwart member of the Communist Party's "liberal" wing. In the Chinese context, this meant that he supported both Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, such as allowing farmers to sell surplus crops on the market and establishing special economic zones, as well as greater political liberalization. In particular, in what even today would be considered a radical idea, Hu declared that the teachings of Mao Zedong had no relevance to contemporary China—even though Mao's rule had ended just a few years before.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, third from right, is photographed in Guizhou province in 1986. Second from right is Hu Jintao, China's future president, while furthest right is Wen Jiabao, China's future prime minister. (Wikimedia Commons)

Opposing Hu were China's "conservatives." These men believed that the country's economic reforms were destabilizing, and staunchly opposed political liberalization. During the 1980s, these conservatives and liberals struggled to influence Deng Xiaoping, whose sympathies lay with both camps.

In 1986, frustrated by the slow pace of reform as well as periodic Communist campaigns to "purify" Chinese culture of Western influence, students began to demonstrate in urban squares across the country. China's leaders were divided, with Hu advocating that the government reach a compromise with the students. This disagreement, ultimately, cost Hu his career. In early January 1987, he formally resigned as China's general secretary and was forced to issue a humiliating, public self-criticism. Two years later he was dead—and the Tiananmen Square uprising was kicked into motion.

For China's liberals, Hu Yaobang's death was a great loss, and, naturally, they wonder what might have happened if he hadn't died. Would the protests, triggered by another pretext, have happened anyway? Or would Hu—in tandem with Zhao Ziyang, another liberal who replaced him as the Party's general secretary until his own purge two years later—have pushed through more incremental political change? Hu Dehua, for his part, believes his father had the potential to be a highly consequential historical figure, akin to a Mao Zedong. But because of Hu's untimely death, we'll never know.

By the standards of today's China, however, it's hard not to view Hu Yaobang's death as a major inflection point—the moment when post-Mao liberalism reached its high-water mark. Even after the Tiananmen Square killings, this wasn't obvious: Many observers felt that the massacre would only pause, not halt, China's inevitable march to liberal democracy. But this hasn't happened and, despite enormous strides in economic development, Chinese citizens in many ways enjoy less freedom now than during Hu Yaobang's tenure as general secretary.

For the first 16 years after his death, the Chinese government forbade media coverage of Hu, effectively deleting him from history. But then, in 2005, the Communist Party acknowledged the 90th anniversary of Hu's birth in a ceremony attended by Wen Jiabao, then China's premier. And last week, ex-President Hu Jintao, a former protege, quietly visited his home. Even the ultra-nationalist Global Times newspaper got into the act, praising Hu as a "man of the people" and stating that China's current reform efforts were consistent with his ideals.

The Global Times, however, refrained to mention what happened right after he died. In another 25 years, perhaps, that too will be possible.