Hu Yaobang, Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, was a liberal reformer. He was responsible for promoting and implementing Deng Xiaoping’s political idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as well as for adopting capitalist elements to facilitate economic reform and the opening up China to the world. Hu was also responsible for reforming the party by establishing clear lines of authority and recruiting young members.
Born in Liuyang, Hunan Province, into a peasant family, Hu Yaobang joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Youth League in 1929 at the age of fourteen while still attending school. In 1933 Hu became a CCP member and was transferred to the CCP’s soviet (an elected governmental council in a Communist country) in Ruijin, Jiangsi Province. As secretary-general of the central committee of the Youth League, Hu was responsible for organizing young people. His success captured the attention of CCP Chairman Mao Zedong, who personally recommended Hu to head the political section of the party-founded Anti-Japanese University. During the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) Hu served as political commissioner in the Red Army in central and north China, working under Deng Xiaoping, who became the paramount leader after Mao’s death.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Hu followed Deng to the southwest, heading the North Sichuan People’s Administrative Office. In mid-1952 Hu and Deng were transferred to Beijing. Hu was assigned to serve in the New Democratic Youth League, which later was renamed the “Chinese Communist Youth League,” first as secretary and then in 1957 as first secretary of the league’s central committee. In September 1956 Hu was elected to the CCP Central Committee. At age forty-one he was the youngest member. Hu served in Beijing until 1963, not only continuing his youth work at home but also leading a number of delegations to promote youth work among Communist and socialist countries.
In late 1964 Hu went to Hunan Province, where he stayed until June 1965. As the first secretary of the Chinese Communist Shaanxi Committee and concurrently second secretary of the CCP Northwest Bureau, Hu had as his chief task restoring the rural order that was severely dislocated by Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958–1960).
In June 1965 Hu returned to Beijing for medical treatment. On 13 August 1966, Hu was relieved of all official posts simply because his ties with Deng made him the target of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Hu was being accused of possessing “bourgeois” tendencies. During the Cultural Revolution Hu was sent to reeducation camps and subjected to frequent persecutions from Lin Biao and the Gang of Four.
Mao’s death in September 1976 ended the Cultural Revolution. Deng was reinstated as vice premier and brought Hu back in 1977 as the head of the Central Organization of the CCP. After Deng’s leading role was confirmed in late 1978, Deng rapidly filled in the key positions with his aides. In 1980 Hu was made secretary-general of the CCP, a post that Deng previously held in 1954 but left vacant in 1957. The next year Hu concurrently took over the chairmanship of the CCP, a post abolished in 1982.
As secretary-general, Hu closely adhered to Deng’s policy of “seeking truth from facts” and promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” both meaning more pragmatism and less dogmatism. Hu’s first task was to rehabilitate the party members who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution to restore national confidence and consolidate the position of the Second Generation (the name given to refer to the core leadership of Deng and Chen Yun, assisted by Hu and Zhao Ziyang, from 1978 to 1989).
Hu’s next important task was overseeing economic reform and opening up China to facilitate rapid economic development. Like Deng, Hu believed that economic reform should be gradual and begin in the rural areas. This belief came partly from his peasant background and partly from his early service in rural areas. Not least were the lessons he had learned from Mao’s radical Great Leap Forward movement, which had done great damage to the national economy. Hu took part in devising measures to develop agriculture, establish special economic zones to attract foreign investment, and introduce capitalist and consumption elements into China’s economy, all of which were perceived as being preconditions for China’s modernization.
Hu’s other important contribution was the establishment of a three-ladder system within the CCP Central Committee Politburo in 1985. This system resolved the succession problem that Mao had created. Because Mao died without naming a successor, his death had created a power vacuum that invited a power struggle, ensuring political instability and a crisis of confidence. Moreover, the three-ladder system helped rejuvenate the party because recruitment of young members could lower the average age of politburo members from the late fifties and early sixties to the mid-forties. One of the young members recruited into the third ladder was Li Peng, who was later responsible for handling the protest that resulted from Hu’s death in 1989.
Hu’s other efforts included unprecedented attention to ethnic minorities, which did much to enhance national cohesion. In 1980 Hu visited Tibet and promised reform to relieve Tibetan poverty, lessening the three-decade-long Tibet-state tensions. Similar reforms were carried out for other minorities along Chinese borders.
Hu’s moderate and progressive stance, especially in economic areas, together with his popularity among youths, irritated some senior party members and conservatives, all of whom felt that Hu’s apparently rightist tendency had undermined Communist ideology. On 16 January 1987, Hu was forced to resign his secretary-general post while keeping his membership in the politburo and the standing committee of the politburo. Hu was deemed to be incapable of controlling the democracy-seeking student demonstrations that broke out in Hefei, Anhui Province, in April 1986 and were supported by similar demonstrations in fourteen other cities. The conservatives held Hu accountable, reasoning that his initial inaction was responsible for the spread of the student antigovernment actions. Thereafter, Hu stepped down from the front line.
After Hu died in Beijing of a heart attack, the next day students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the loss. Their mourning soon became a protest, renewing demands for political liberalization and immediate democracy. To curb the discontent, a state funeral for Hu was held on April 22. However, the funeral failed to end the protest. As students continued to come to the square, similar protests were held in other places, culminating in the Tiananmen Incident that stunned the world. On 4 June, at the order of President Yang Shangkun, who had Deng and Premier Li Peng on his side, the People’s Liberation Army marched in to clear and restore order in Tiananmen Square. The violence and resulting deaths focused the world’s attention on Beijing.
After the incident the reform measures that Hu had taken an active role in were slowed, some even halted, and Hu’s name was never mentioned publicly by the government and the media. This silence was broken on 18 November 2005, when the CCP held an official commemoration to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of Hu’s birth. This commemoration generated speculation that the Fourth Generation, led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabo, had plans to rehabilitate Hu.
Blecher, M. J. (2003). China against the tides: Restructuring through revolution, radicalism and reform (2nd ed.). London: Continuum.
Chen Weixing & Yang Zhong. (Eds.). (2005). Leadership in a changing China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pang Pang. (1989). Death of Hu Yaobang (S. Ren, Trans.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Yang Zhongmei. (1988). Hu Yaobang: A Chinese biography (W. A. Wycoff, Trans.). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
How can you put out a fire set on a cart-load of firewood with only a cup of water?
Bēi shuǐ chē xīn
Source: Law, Yuk-fun. (2009). HU Yaobang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1081–1083. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
HU Yaobang (Hú Yàobāng 胡耀邦)|Hú Yàobāng 胡耀邦 (HU Yaobang)