Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Remembering Reformer Hu Yaobang

Former General Secretary Hu Yaobang remembered
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of former senior Chinese official Hu Yaobang's death.

It was his passing that sparked spontaneous public grieving and then students converging on Tiananmen Square demanding democracy. We all know what happened next.

Hu was highly respected for trying to clear people's names after several political purges and try to free China from Maoist dogma.

"Hu Yaobang launched the campaign to vindicate people who were wrongly accused. Without him, I doubt whether it could have taken place at all," said He Fang, a 91-year-old former senior official at the foreign ministry.

Much like Deng Xiaoping, Hu was also purged recalled and purged again. As Deng rose to power, so did Hu, appointing him to several powerful positions.

Students remember Hu in Tiananmen
When Hu was General Secretary, he tried to get officials to govern more transparently and loosen economic controls.

However Party elders opposed market reforms, calling them "bourgeois liberalization" and they found an excuse to get rid of him when there were student demonstrations across the country in 1987, blaming him for the disruptions.

While Hu was forced to resign as General Secretary, he was allowed to keep his Politburo seat. He died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989 and the day after people began small-scale demonstrations, commemorating him and also calling on the government to reassess his legacy.

A week later, a day before the funeral, some 100,000 students marched into Tiananmen Square and then began occupying it. Hu's successor Zhao Ziyang had to deal with the crisis and then he too was forced out.

Twenty-five years on, there has hardly been any mention of Hu's name officially, though former president Hu Jintao paid a surprise visit to the Hu formal residence a few days earlier.

Hu's son, Hu Dehua laments that the window of opportunity for reforms was lost a quarter of a century ago.

His father believed that political reforms had to go hand-in-hand with economic ones and in 1986 had planned to draft a law to protect press freedoms, but he was purged a year later before it could be enacted.

"Press freedom should have been the first step in political reform, but there is still no law on it... I guess it will never come out," Hu Dehua said.

Soldiers and students on the day of Hu's funeral
"When you have no law to protect these rights, everything is in the hands of the officials. Although we have a constitution which guarantees freedoms in speech and assembly... in fact, there are hardly any freedoms. We have no right to supervise [the government]."

Hu Dehua went on to say: "Today, corruption among officials is impossible to rein in and ethnic tension is intense. There was a window for reform then [in the 1980s] but it was missed and I don't know when the next one will come."

Although he lost his position, Hu Yaobang did not regret it, but according to his son, he was heartbroken when reforms that could have brought checks and balances on the government's power were not enacted.

Hu Dehua, 65, most remembers his father for making him realize Maoist dogma controlled the country.

He says that at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968, the senior Hu asked his teenage son whether he thought the popular slogan, "Everything we do for Chairman Mao; and in all our actions we closely follow and obey Chairman Mao" -- was correct.

The younger Hu did not question it at all.

"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."

When he heard this, Hu Dehua felt like he'd been struck by lightning and saw his father as an exceptional man. "He did not follow the herd."

And 25 years later what has happened to China? Despite ever-increasing economic growth, there are even greater restrictions on the media, and political reforms are only within the Party and not the general public.

It makes one wonder what if Hu Yaobang continued in his position and what China would look like today...

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