China Considers Low-Key Tribute to Purged Leader

November 7, 2005 Updated: November 7, 2005

BEIJING – Fearful of triggering unrest, China&#039s Communist Party has proposed low-key commemorations for the reformist leader whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy Massacre, political sources said on Monday.

The party now wants a seminar for 300 people on Nov. 18 instead of the originally planned 2,000-strong gathering on Hu Yaobang&#039s 90th birth anniversary two days later, said a source close to Hu&#039s family and two others with knowledge of the plans.

Holding the tribute earlier than scheduled would provide current party chief Hu Jintao with an excuse not to be present as he will be in South Korea attending an Asia-Pacific summit, said the sources, who asked not to be named. The Hus are not related.

They said it was unclear if Hu Jintao would support the proposal, which calls for Premier Wen Jiabao to attend the event in his place. Family members, party officials and former colleagues are also expected to attend.

The debate over how to commemorate Hu Yaobang&#039s anniversary has highlighted the Communist Party&#039s fears about potential political unrest.

“Even now, the central leadership hasn&#039t decided on the arrangements,” an editor of a party-controlled journal said.

The cabinet spokesman&#039s office had no immediate comment.

Hu Yaobang&#039s name has rarely been mentioned in state media since the popular leader&#039s death on April 15, 1989, sparked the Tiananmen protests, which were brutally crushed by the army on June 4 that year. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed.

Cashing In

Hu Yaobang, Chinese Communist Party general secretary in 1986 (Pascal George/AFP/Getty Images)
Hu Yaobang, Chinese Communist Party general secretary in 1986 (Pascal George/AFP/Getty Images)

Hu Jintao decided to commemorate Hu Yaobang&#039s birth anniversary this year, aiming to cash in on his predecessor&#039s residual influence and burnishing his own image, which has been damaged by a crackdown on liberal intellectuals, progressive reporters and civil rights campaigners.

But party hardliners fear a breeze of political openness could lead to popular protests along the lines of those which toppled authoritarian regimes in post-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia.

“They&#039re worried repercussions in the civilian sector would exceed expectations,” an academic with knowledge of the commemorations told Reuters. “If uncontrolled, there could be major upheavals.”

Li Changchun and Luo Gan, who sit on the party&#039s all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and oversee propaganda and security respectively, expressed reservations about a large-scale ceremony, the sources said.

Two sources said Hu Jintao pressed ahead, saying Hu Yaobang&#039s death had nothing to do with the Tiananmen protests.

China&#039s leadership has ruled out any rehabilitation of the Tiananmen protests, which were branded “subversive”, or of Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted as party chief in 1989 for opposing the massacre and lived under house arrest until his death in January.

Publication of Hu Yaobang&#039s biography by former aides hit a snag after the authorities gave their blessing only to the first volume, which covered his life before the 1949 revolution and was watered down on orders from the party, one of the authors said.

The second and third volumes were deemed too sensitive because they covered his resignation in 1987 over a wave of student unrest after party hardliners accused him of allowing “bourgeois liberalism” – Western values – to spread unchecked.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, two Hong Kong television reporters were detained in the ancient capital of Xian in northwestern China on Sunday when they tried to interview Hu Yaobang&#039s former secretary, Lin Mu.

Hu Yaobang was popular among ordinary Chinese for rehabilitating millions, including landlords, rich farmers and intellectuals, purged during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement. He gave victims of the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution their lives back and reopened schools suspended for a decade.