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    Greater China
     Apr 21, 2010
SUN WUKONG
Hu, Wen and why
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - In China, the present is often talked about with reference to history. It is therefore no wonder that a eulogy written by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the late reform-minded Communist Party chief, Hu Yaobang, has immediately drawn wide attention.

The article was published in the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper, on April 15 - the 21st anniversary of Hu's death. Speculation has been rife since about the hidden messages Wen intended to deliver.

There are unwritten rules of the party. For example, a senior official such as Wen, who is number three leader of the party and

 

the state, cannot publish such articles without the collective consent of the power center - the politburo or its standing committee.

Thus, some analysts are interpreting the article's publication as the sign of a subtle change in the political climate. In China's officialdom, Hu Yaobang still remains a divisive figure even though he passed away 21 years ago.

Handpicked by Deng Xiaoping, Hu was named as head of the Chinese Communist Party in mid-1981. Deng once described Hu and Zhao Ziyang (then premier) as his "left and right hands" in economic reform and opening up. Hu quickly won popularity, especially among intellectuals, for his liberal thinking and down-to-earth work style. Today, he is remembered for his rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cadres and intellectuals purged during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the anti-rightist campaign in the late 1950s.

At the end of 1986 and the beginning of 1987, students in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui, Tianjin and Beijing municipalities took to the streets, successively demanding greater freedom and democracy. Deng and the old guard saw this as a result of the spread of "bourgeois liberalization" tolerated by Hu.

To avoid a violent crackdown, Hu agreed to take the blame and step down as party general secretary, though he was allowed to stay on as a member of the politburo. Zhao Ziyang was appointed by Deng as party chief. Hu died on April 15, 1989, after suffering a sudden heart attack at a politburo meeting.

When Hu died, groups of Beijing students went to Tiananmen Square to mourn a man they respected as a liberal leader. They were quickly joined by hundreds of thousands more students and Beijing citizens. The massive mourning of Hu turned into week-long demonstrations demanding greater freedom and democracy and a crackdown on official corruption. They were brutally suppressed by armed troops on the night of June 3-4.

After these events, Hu remained for a long time a taboo figure, since he was a liberal leader who favored political reform whose death had helped inspire the Tiananmen demonstrations. It was not until 2005, after Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao consolidated their power, that the party held a high-profile - albeit closed-door - ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of Hu Yaobang's birth.

Both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao should be grateful to Hu Yaobang, because without the latter's fostering in the early 1980s neither would likely hold their positions today.

At the time of the 2005 ceremony, it was said that Hu Jintao wanted to attend, but could not due to strong opposition from party conservatives. Wen was present, but did not talk. Instead, then vice president Zeng Qinghong delivered a speech that highly praised Hu Yaobang.

After the ceremony, there were no other high-profile official activities in memory of Hu Yaobang - until Wen's article. This is the first article ever published by a senior official to remember the late leader, which indicates a further relaxation of unwritten restrictions on mourning Hu Yaobang - more than two decades after his death

Wen, in the 3,500-character article, recalls accompanying Hu Yaobang on an inspection visit to southwest Guizhou province in 1986 (Wen was then a deputy director of the party's general office and was about to be promoted to director, a post seen as virtually the secretary of the number one leader). During the trip, Hu Yaobang asked Wen to get first-hand information about the lives of people at the grassroots level. "For a cadre, the greatest danger lies in losing contact with reality," Hu Yaobang was quoted as telling Wen.

Wen has been cultivating an image as a premier of the common people. He is often seen on television visiting China's poorer areas, chatting with peasants, workers and officials. When the article was published, he was in Yushu in northwestern province of Qinghai, which was was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake on April 14 with more than 2,000 people killed and over 12,000 injured (as of April 19).

Wen said in the article that his work style had been deeply influenced by Hu Yaobang. During the two years working directly under Hu, "I was personally affected by Comrade Yaobang's good work style of building close connections with the masses and caring for the masses, and by his lofty morality of selflessness and being open and aboveboard." Wen wrote, adding that all this had "great influence on my work, study and life afterwards".

Wen also talked about his close relationship with his mentor. After Hu Yaobang stepped down, Wen wrote that he "frequently visited him at home." When Hu Yaobang was hospitalized following his heart attack in April 1989, Wen kept watch by his bedside and escorted his ashes to the eastern Jiangxi province for burial. Wen visited Hu's widow each Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.

Because Hu was respected as a liberal leader in favor of political reform, some analysts see the publication of the article as an indication of subtle change in China's political climate, in favor of political reform. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported on April 15 ("Chinese Eulogy Bares Party Intrigue"):
Jing Huang, a professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the article signals that Mr Wen and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also Communist Party chief, have "prevailed in a struggle over conservative forces and reached a new consensus" on political reform - albeit gradual reform under the party's guidance. "Hu Yaobang is the perfect person to highlight the importance of political reform as well as the Party's leadership in the reform," Mr Huang said.
In balance, the report added:
Others saw a different motive. "This has nothing to do with political reform," said an editor at a government-run newspaper. "It's about Wen's reputation." The editor argued that the eulogy was intended to demonstrate Mr Wen's loyalty to an old mentor - one still viewed positively by many in China - and to suggest the premier's status as heir to a populist mantle.
Indeed, the argument that Wen published the article to push political reform does not seem strong - using Hu Yaobang's name to do this would only make things more complicated. This is because the former party chief remains a sensitive figure disliked by party conservatives. Any thorough discussion of Hu Yaobang and political reform would inevitably lead to a debate of the bloody June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, a taboo Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao may not be ready to break.

More likely, Wen is using Hu Yaobang as an example to warn officials that they should keep people's interests in their hearts. "Wen Jiabao himself may be working hard to follow the example of Hu Yaobang. But most officials today are not. They work for their own interests. Hu Yaobang was popular because he was amiable, easy to approach, tolerant of different opinions, plain and clean. If most, not to say all, officials today were like him, the communist party would have not become concerned with its legitimacy to continuous rule. Wen's article in fact expresses worry about the current corrupt officialdom," said a sociology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

If this is the case, then whether Wen's good intentions are understood by officials remains problematic. If they do understand, it is even less likely they will follow the premier's advice. Setting a positive example was an effective practice during Mao Zedong's time. Today, it seems to have lost its attraction.

Wen may also have other personal reasons behind publishing the article. Clearly, he intends to tell the world that he was closer to Hu Yaobang than Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced party chief he worked for in 1987-1989.

On the evening of May 19, 1989, Zhao went to Tiananmen Square to visit students on a hunger strike. The visit came hours before martial law was imposed and Zhao was later sidelined, and then purged, for his opposition to the crackdown.

After Wen was seen accompanying Zhao during the latter's last public appearance, there were rumors that Wen was a protege of Zhao. When Zhao died under house arrest in 2005, Wen did not go to publicly mourn his death. The premier also avoids making any comment on Zhao, which led to some to criticize Wen as "ungrateful".

However, in May 1989 Wen was director of the general office of the party's central committee. It was therefore his his duty to accompany the party's number one leader on visits. Wen's appearance at Tiananmen with Zhao does not necessarily mean the two were close. Also, given his current position, Wen is not free to make public comment that would clarify his relationship with Zhao.

By praising Hu Yaobang now and talking up his close relationship with him, Wen is strongly implying that he was a protege of Hu, not Zhao. It was well known that Hu and Zhao, though the "left and right hands" of Deng, did not get along.

In fact, Wen may be more grateful to Hu, since he "discovered" Wen and promoted him to the power center from remote Gansu province, paving the way for his later rise.

Like many Chinese leaders, Wen Jiabao cares very much about his public image and reputation. He certainly wants to be remembered as a near-perfect premier of the common man. As such, he must have been deeply concerned by the criticism of him as "ungrateful", since ungratefulness is regarded as an unforgivable sin in traditional Chinese society.

Thus, in his article, Wen talked about how respectful and grateful he is to Hu Yaobang. For Wen to make the clarification now may be of great importance. He retires in a few years and, according to adopted practice, must then refrain from making public comment on political affairs or figures - past or present.

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