HONG KONG—China's leadership is planning to honor late Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, who was ousted in 1987 for a too-liberal approach. But Chinese scholars say the unexpected move probably reflects internal Party politics more than a shift toward liberalization.
"I heard about this a while ago," Boston-based philosophy professor and former top ideologue at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Su Shaozhi told RFA's Mandarin service.
"President Hu Jintao had a meeting with Hu Yaobang’s widow, whose name is Li Zhao," Su said in response to a Reuters news agency report about the decision. "He told her he wanted to hold a commemorative activity in the Great Hall of the People."
"So, yes, there will be a commemorative event. But that event will remain controlled within the limits of Hu Jintao's own political thinking," said Su.
CASS is an academic institution under the direct control of China's cabinet, the State Council, and Su was formerly the head of its Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought department.
The event will commemorate the 90th anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s birth on Nov. 20, but Su said any discussion of the former leader’s liberal reform agenda would be strictly limited by current political constraints.
Hu Yaobang was sacked as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1987 for leaning towards "Western, bourgeois" principles of democracy and rule of law, amid a political campaign orchestrated by then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
"It will be restricted by Hu. For example, they will leave out any mention of Hu Yaobang's leanings towards democracy," Su told RFA reporter Yang Jiadai. "So don't read this as a liberalizing move on the part of Hu Jintao."
Analysts inside and outside China have linked the decision to attempts by Hu Jintao to consolidate his grip on power following the leadership succession two years ago.
Hu Yaobang and Hu Jintao shared a political background and strong support in the influential Communist Party Youth League, and the incumbent president was hoping to benefit politically by invoking Hu Yaobang’s name, they said.
Boston-based scholar and 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement veteran Gao Xin warned against viewing the move as a step towards a re-evaluation of the official verdict of “counterrevolutionary rebellion” passed on the 1989 crackdown, or of any official rehabilitation for the late former Party chief Zhao Ziyang.
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.
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, and triggered the fall of Hu Yaobang's successor, Zhao Ziyang.
Zhao's death and funeral in January passed without incident, thanks largely to official success in wiping out his memory, observers said at the time.
"The outside world will naturally make a link with the possibility of a re-evaluation of the official verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, but I don't think that's right," Gao said. "An elevation of Hu Yaobang to a higher status than when Deng Xiaoping was still alive doesn't add up to a re-evaluation of June 4."
Gao, who specializes in tracking personnel changes within China's highly secretive Communist Party, said it was important to remember that Hu Yaobang, unlike Zhao Ziyang, had already been rehabilitated following a self-criticism, and died with his political image intact.
He said the use of the word "rehabilitation" in foreign media reports about the ceremony for Hu Yaobang could be misleading.
"When he was forced out of office, Deng Xiaoping left him with some of his dignity. He was allowed to keep a post on the Politburo Standing Committee. After the 13th Party Congress (1987), he was allowed to keep his rank-and-file seat in the full Politburo."
"Because of everything that happened afterwards, including June 4, 1989, the world hasn,t really given that much consideration to Hu Yaobang's relatively positive evaluation within the ranks of the Party," Gao told RFA.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.