Sunday, November 20, 2005

China recalls ousted reformist as "statesman"

Ousted reformist leader Hu Yaobang in 1981.

The name Hu Yaobang is probably not a household world in most countries outside of China (although an old "Tonight Show" gag still viewable on reruns has Johnny Carson playing Ronald Reagan doing a "Hu's on the phone?" routine reminiscent of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on first?").

Even in China, most people in college would have been too young to remember much of anything about the tumult that surrounded his death in 1989, but it was a key factor in the Tiananmen protests that rocked the country that year and set China on a very different path.

Hu Yaobang (no relation to President Hu Jintao) makes the Chinese Communist Party uneasy. He was respected by some in the party, but the ousted reformist leader's link in the public's mind to the 1989 protests made any official action involving him sensitive.

But in a ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of his birth, China's leaders praised him as a statesman. According to AP, the ceremony, which was attended by Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials, "rehabilitated the memory of Hu Yaobang and appeared to be an attempt to strengthen the leadership's reformist image."

Quoting Vice President Zeng Qinghong said in a speech at the ceremony:

Comrade Hu Yaobang was a long-tested and staunch communist warrior, a great proletarian revolutionist and statesman (and) an outstanding political leader for the Chinese army.
Xinhua News Agency said Hu Yaobang helped repair damage from the Cultural Revolution and that he "helped correct numerous misjudged cases ... and exonerate more than 3 million purged cadres."

China has removed a group of liberal intellectuals close to the late Community Party chief Hu Yaobang from a list of guests invited to a memorial marking the leader's 90th birthday, sources said on November 17, 2005. The move underlines the political sensitivity of the commemoration on Friday and is in keeping with a party decision to scale it down to avoid unrest. The background here is important. Hu Yaobang was dismissed as Communist Party general secretary in 1987 by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping for allowing student protests. After Hu's death in April 1989, students who admired his reformist record left funeral wreaths in Tiananmen Square.

That outpouring grew into the demonstrations that sparked the nascent and perhaps mislabeled "democracy movement" that ended in a military attack on June 3-4, 1989, during and after which at least hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sits at the center of the commemoration ceremony.

So why is China doing this now? Why is this (possibly) significant? Well, figuring this stuff out is half the fun of "China-watching." AP says that Hu Yaobang was liked by party liberals, and analysts say that by honoring him, current President Hu might be trying to reach out to liberals and revive stalled political reforms.

But China-watching is rarely that simple. Beijing removed the names of a group of liberal intellectuals close to Hu Yaobang from a list of guests, put together by Hu's family, who were invited to the ceremony. According to Reuters, the move underlines the political sensitivity of the commemoration and is "in keeping with a party decision to scale it down to avoid unrest."

In this case, is the resulting half-measure perhaps better than no measure?

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