Twenty-five years ago today, on April 15, 1989, a man named Hu Yaobang died in a hospital in Beijing, China following a heart attack he’d suffered several days earlier. You’ve probably never heard of this person, and the fact I’ve just related sounds like an ending–especially to a life as eventful and tumultuous as Hu Yaobang’s–but in fact it was only the beginning of another story. It was a story so momentous that it was one of the pivotal events of the 20th century.
Hu Yaobang’s life could fill several books, and would make a fascinating movie. Born in Hunan in 1915, four years after the Chinese Revolution began, Hu’s life was closely linked with that revolution, arguably the longest, bloodiest and most complex of the many political revolutions of the 20th century. Hu became a Communist at age 14. He participated in the Long March, the quintessential event that came to symbolize the political and social struggle of Communists during the Chinese Revolution, and cheated death many times. He was captured by the Nationalists and forced to join a labor gang. During World War II, like most Communist Chinese, Hu laid low in Yenan, where Communist leader Mao Zedong hoped that their Nationalist enemies would exhaust themselves fighting the Japanese and be easy pickings for a Communist revolution after the war. That’s exactly what happened. Mao and the Communists came to power in October 1949 and Hu Yaobang, together with his political mentor Deng Xiaoping, was given an office in the new government.
Despite his long service to the Communist cause, Hu Yaobang was something of an iconoclast. He didn’t follow the strict orthodoxy of the Party and was sometimes viewed as an enemy by Mao, especially during the Cultural Revolution. In this upheaval Yu was arrested and paraded through the streets wearing a wooden collar as punishment for political crimes. He was also sent to do forced labor (again) and might have died in obscurity if his mentor Deng didn’t have the good fortune to win the knock-down, drag-out power struggle that convulsed the Chinese government in the late 1970s after the death of Mao Zedong. With Deng’s victory Yu was on top again, and by the 1980s was the General Secretary of the Communist Party, second in power in the state only to Deng Xiaoping.
Although Hu Yaobang was a fairly minor official in the scheme of Chinese Communist history, somehow he has the most impressive tomb of any Communist leader except Mao himself. This is a picture of it.
It was in this capacity that Hu truly earned his place in history. China’s political history in the 1980s was the story of a long struggle between reformers, who wanted to modernize Chinese Communism and bring it into the modern age, and hard-liners who feared any erosion of their power. Hu generally sided with the reformers. In December 1986, a series of demonstrations occurred on many university campuses in China. Students–much like Western college students in the 1960s–were calling for reforms, openness and a more flexible attitude on behalf of their political leaders. Deng Xiaoping was alarmed by these protests, but Hu Yaobang refused to carry out Deng’s order to fire political leaders who called for dialogue with them. This cost Hu his job. In the winter of 1987 he was forced to resign his high office, but was retained as a member of the Politburo.
So what does this all mean? How do these arcane intrigues in the world of Communist politics figure into one of the greatest events of the century?
Like this. When Hu Yaobang died on April 15, 1989, students across China, but particularly in the universities in Beijing, were hit hard by his death. They saw him as one of the few champions they had at the high levels of government. A few students created a small memorial for him in Beijing’s large open square, whose name is Tiananmen. The mourning and memorial for Hu Yaobang soon became, in the eyes of the students, an opportunity to reopen dialogue with the government about reform and democracy. We all know how this “dialogue” ended–on June 4 the Communist government decided to answer back with bullets–but the Tiananmen Square demonstrations arose directly from the death of Hu Yaobang.
I am convinced that if there had been no Tiananmen Square protests, the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 would never have happened. If that hadn’t happened, the final collapse of Soviet Communism itself would not have happened, or wouldn’t have happened the same way. Thus, despite his amazing life, Hu Yaobang’s real contribution to world history occurred after his death.