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
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
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
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
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
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
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.