HONG KONG—The 20th anniversary of the death of China's reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang has ushered in a period of great political sensitivity for Beijing, where authorities go to great lengths to avoid public discussion of the mass protests triggered by his funeral.
Popular among ordinary Chinese for rehabilitating millions purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and for righting some of the wrongs of the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Hu was mourned by thousands on Tiananmen Square in May 1989.
...Our first mass demonstration...was an attempt to attend his funeral."
1989 student activist
This demonstration of public grief and outrage sparked the student-led pro-democracy movement, which ended with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths in early June that year. It also triggered the fall of Hu Yaobang's successor, Zhao Ziyang.
Tight security measures began to be put in place in Beijing this week and are expected last through the June 4 anniversary.
A former student in Beijing two decades ago, surnamed Xiang and now living in New York, said he participated in the pro-democracy movement, as Hu's passing electrified college campuses around Beijing.
"There were many big-character posters on our campus paying respect to him, which encouraged the students' involvement," Xiang said. "I visited some of the other universities and saw the same thing."
Students mourned Hu
"Actually, our first mass demonstration [march] to Tiananmen was an attempt to attend his funeral," Xiang added.
Former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan said Hu was revered by ordinary Chinese as a relatively open-minded and liberal leader, whose ouster was a direct result of his leniency toward liberal views in the Party.
"Hu's sudden ouster was related to his leniency towards liberal tendencies back then," Wang said.
"At that time, every college student craved liberal thinking, and all regretted that he was removed from office."
"Thus, Hu Yaobang's passing inspired the students to an even more democratic and liberal way of thinking," he added.
China's leadership has reportedly held a private event to honor Hu Yaobang, who was sacked as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1987 for leaning toward "Western, bourgeois" principles of democracy and rule of law, amid a political campaign orchestrated by then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
In contrast with his successor, Zhao Ziyang, who died in January 2005 after two decades of political disgrace and house arrest at his Beijing home, Hu was forced out of office by Deng but left with some of his dignity intact.
Hu was allowed to keep a post on the Politburo Standing Committee, and after the 13th Party Congress (1987) was allowed to keep his rank-and-file seat in the full Politburo.
But articles and forum posts connected in any way to the events of 20 years ago are being deleted regularly from Chinese cyberspace, including an appeal for the rehabilitation of Hu and Zhao signed by 12 former top Party officials.
Signatories to the appeal include former Communist personnel department deputy chief Li Rui and former People’s Daily
editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei.
"All on-line articles about the June 4 will be censored right upon posting," according to the editor of the "Chinese Rights Defenders" Web site, Qiu Feng.
"On our Web site there are articles about Hu Yaobang. However, they survived because they refrain from mentioning June 4.
Writer and Independent Chinese PEN member Liu Yiming said Hu is considered less sensitive for his political history than for the unrest his death provoked.
"I believe the purpose of the authorities in blocking information on Hu
Yaobang is that they want to block information about June 4," Liu said.
And the organizer of the nongovernment group Civil Monitor, Guo Yongfeng, said the restrictions show a regime that is still fundamentally insecure about its grip on power.
"Blocking information shows that the Chinese regime is outwardly strong but internally weak," Guo said. "They have already lost the support of the Chinese people."
Call for reappraisal
U.S.-based Wang Dan called for a public reappraisal of the June 4 crackdown.
"For the Chinese authorities, I think the point is not whether or not they can fortify Tiananmen Square every year between April and June," he said.
"Traces of history cannot be erased by this kind of method. Rather, I think it would be better for the authorities to react positively to reality, and to re-evaluate the Tiananmen movement."
"Otherwise, they have to go through this fear every year, and that is a lot of trouble," Wang said.
'No time for darkness'
In a 2005 essay on Hu's contribution, former top Party aide Bao Tong, who was relieved of office alongside Zhao, described Hu as having ushered in a new political atmosphere during his time in office.
"He had no time for the darkness in the Party and dedicated himself to a campaign against empty speech and overturning wrong decisions made in the past," Bao wrote from house arrest at his Beijing home.
"It didn’t matter whose decision it was; if it was harmful, false or unreasoned, he would toss it aside ... even if it was made by Mao Zedong himself."
"The spirit of Hu Yaobang should be allowed to permeate China’s political and cultural life, to sweep away the suffocating air of tyranny, corruption, and hypocrisy, and create another few million Hu Yaobangs," wrote Bao.
"The Party should learn a painful lesson from its treatment of Hu Yaobang."
China's state-controlled official media have so far remained silent on the subject of the anniversary of Hu's death, although sporadic comments could be seen from Chinese netizens Tuesday.
"The older generation's opinion of him is good. It's just a shame that afterwards at school we have not ever really heard of him," said one posting on popular web portal sina.com.cn.
"This good man will always live in people's hearts," said another.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and Shi Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Chen Ping. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.