Remembering a forgotten hero

On the night of Nov. 15, Dr. Bruce Gilley, associate professor of political science at Portland State, discussed the lingering political and ideological impact of Hu Yaobang, who served as China’s General Secretary from 1982 to 1987.

The lecture, presented on behalf of PSU’s Confucius Institute, focused on Hu’s bold political beliefs, which often directly challenged the more conservative perspective of the Communist Party of China at large. Gilley discussed Hu’s accomplishments while in office, the influence he had on China and the legacy he left behind.

“Many of the things that have come since in Chinese politics we can trace back to the Hu Yaobang period…I don’t think just any political leader is a hero,” Gilley said.

“When we look at what Hu Yaobang did in this period, he did things that were heroic in the sense of stepping outside of the safe boundaries of Chinese politics.”

Looking backward

Hu, a staunch liberal who spoke openly of a necessary move to a more democratic form of government, promoted an open approach to policy, elections comprised of more than one candidate and increased governmental transparency, expressing a controversial desire for expanded interaction with the public on affairs of state.

In a government notorious for censorship, corruption and intolerance, Hu pushed for unprecedented change in the social and political landscape, advocating democratic ideals that stood in stark contrast to the conventional sentiments of Chinese politics. This insistence on reform irked plenty of contemporary senior Chinese officials but cemented Hu’s role in the hearts and minds of Chinese citizens.

While no Chinese leader has presented such an open liberal agenda or vied for dramatic political or societal upheaval following Hu, his contribution to China’s national consciousness is undeniable, Gilley said.

“I believe he was heroic in voicing his opinion and giving voice to things that weren’t really in the best interest of the Chinese government at the time…and in really going against the anti-Soviet Union type of ideology,” said Isaiah Alvarez, a student of Warner Pacific College who attended the lecture. “So in that regard, he was heroic.”

After his death on April 8, 1989, a memorial service was scheduled in Tiananmen Square, with a turnout exceeding 50,000. Fueled by Hu’s libertarian beliefs and anger at the government’s failure to provide a proper memorial service in a timely manner, mourning gave way to protest. The protests lasted from April 15 to June 4, 1989. The response on behalf of the government, which labeled the protests as counter-revolutionary, was one of intolerance and violence, culminating in upward of 1,000 estimated casualties.

In the bloody aftermath, the government declared discussion of Hu’s political beliefs to be highly destabilizing and a threat to China at large, subsequently censoring any mention of Hu in the media. There would be no mention of the former general secretary until the ban was lifted in 2005.

“The 2005 conference led to this explosion of publishing, so now Hu Yaobang is back in,” Gilley said. “You can write about him, you can talk about him, you can hold conferences about him.”

Looking forward

Despite the recent revitalization of Hu’s legacy, it’s important to maintain realistic expectations for the future. The influx of content and discussion involving Hu is not necessarily reflective of China embracing the notion of a more liberal tomorrow. The party is more likely simply seizing the opportunity to sate the public’s appetite,
Gilley said.

“What I think’s happening with Hu Yaobang’s memory is that the party recognizes that Hu Yaobang’s widely liked, and loved, and remembered across the whole spectrum,” Gilley said.

“And the party would like to enjoy some of that aura, to enjoy some of that positive feeling, and the reason the party has embraced him is because it feels as though if they embrace Hu Yaobang, they will get some of that positive feeling.”

Though the party’s tolerance of Hu’s memory may be entirely superficial, manufactured to secure trust between government and populace, Gilley believes that it’s possible that the party may at some point own up to what happened at Tiananmen Square.

“At what point does the party decide to do with Tiananmen what it’s done with Hu Yaobang? Let’s get this aura back. Let’s rehabilitate this. Let’s say we understand what’s happened there. We’re no longer considering this something that needs to be purged from the party memory. And maybe that’s still a ways off, but you can see the movement in that direction,” Gilley said.
The likelihood of that happening anytime soon seems distant, according to Dr. Matthew Brazil, an adjunct professor in PSU’s history department.

“…It’s very unlikely that the verdict of it being a counter-revolutionary rebellion will ever be reversed, as long as the communist party is in power,” Brazil said.

Regardless of what China’s future may hold, Hu remains an instrumental component of its past and a hero to many. His bold democratic vision may have yet to come to fruition, but the seeds of revolution have been planted. And when, if ever, China takes that crucial plunge forward, Hu Yaobang will be remembered as the man who brought life to the possibility.