Hu Yaobang: the Death That Sparked a Movement

Hu Yaobang: the Death That Sparked a Movement

Thirty years ago yesterday, the death of high-ranking official and former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang prompted thousands of Chinese students sympathetic to the liberal official to take to the streets of Beijing in mourning and solidarity with Hu’s desire to increase transparency in government and end corruption. At RADII China, Jeremiah Jenne recalls how the nascent show of support for a fallen leader coalesced into a movement that would forever change China:

[…] The day after Hu’s death, people gathered in Tiananmen Square in a spontaneous demonstration of grief. The politburo was also receiving reports of student-organized memorial activities on university campuses.

[…] Hu’s death gave students an opportunity to express their grief as well as an outlet for their frustration at the lack of political reform and the rise of corruption and their uncertainty about their futures as an educated elite in a changing economy.

[…]Hu’s funeral, held in the Great Hall of the People, took place on April 22. That same day, over 50,000 students converged on Tiananmen Square. They carried signs and shouted slogans, and demanded to be let inside. They had come to petition the government and had a letter addressed to Premier Li Peng.

Over the next six weeks, the numbers of demonstrators grew as ordinary citizens joined the students to express their own grievances. Despite increasingly stern warnings and threats from party leaders, the square filled with people, each with their anxieties, dreams, complaints, and hopes and united by the possibility of change. [Source]

At The Washington Post, Anna Fifield reports on how the sensitive 30th anniversary of Hu’s death was closely monitored both physically and online. No official public memorials were organized in China to mark the anniversary yesterday, but some people did travel to his tomb in Jiangxi to pay their respects:

About 20 people, including Hu’s sons, traveled to the Huyaobang Cemetery in Gongqingcheng (literally “Communist Youth League City”) in Jiangxi province for an exhibition to “preserve Red memory,” according to local reports. Police officers kept a close watch on them.

The anniversary was also carefully monitored online.

[…] The Youth League Committee of Hainan University also posted. “Today marks the 30th anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s death. The man has gone, but his cause is left for the later generations to develop,” the post said. “We hope the younger generation can continue with the past and open up the future in honor of the older generation, and our cause of reform will never stop!”

But not anyone could comment. The hashtag #胡耀邦逝世三十周年 (“30th Anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s Passing”) was deleted on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Many young Chinese will know little, if anything, about Hu’s role. All but the most anodyne references to events related to Tiananmen Square are scrubbed from China’s history textbooks, and all discussion of it is censored on the Chinese Internet. [Source]

At Voice of America, Joyce Huang and Ye Bing relay comments praising of Hu Yaobang, highlighting just how far the CCP leadership has moved away from his vision of reform over the past 30 years:

“When I recalled [what] Hu Yaobang [had achieved] some 30 years ago, I deeply felt as if that was from another life. China has become a different country… And by his example, you can tell how much this [communist] party has backtracked,” said Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

“Hu Yaobang neither put his own, nor the Communist Party’s grip of power before [the welfare] of the people. It was in his belief that people would live a better life should there be no intervention from country leaders and that the economy and society would revive itself should the party impose no social and economic controls,” said Xia Ming, professor of political science and global affairs at The City University of New York.

[…] In addition to discarding Hu’s political vision, China is also trying to erase memory of the June 4th movement.

[…] It is the government’s bloody crackdown, instead of student protests, that stalled China’s political reforms, [Wang Dan] said, rebutting some arguments that tried to discredit the movement. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, columnist Cary Huang also recalls Hu’s legacy as a political reformist to accentuate just how little has changed since his death:

A passionate liberaliser in the 1980s, Hu relentlessly sought to overturn the purges and ideological shibboleths of the Maoist era. But he was removed from the party’s top position of general secretary in 1987 and sidelined for tolerating “bourgeois liberalisation”, or having sympathy for student demands for democratic reform.

[…] His death at age 73, on April 15, 1989, triggered an outpouring of public grief over the reformer‘s political suffering. A week after his death about 100,000 students marched on Tiananmen Square in a powerful display of anger, sadness and sympathy for Hu. Eventually, public mourning snowballed into several weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests and hunger strikes, which finally ended with a bloody military crackdown on June 4 that year.

Since then, Hu has become an icon for political reform and democratic change in China. He has become the benchmark that people might use to measure other leaders’ integrity, performance, and ideological and political inclinations.

[…] Today, however, Hu’s legacy is a reminder to many Chinese of the political reforms which have stalled since his death. [Source]

CDT has since 2011 been documenting the sensitive words blocked on and around June 4, part of the modern CCP’s efforts to blur the memory of the fateful day 30 years ago and the protest movement that led up to it. This year, Citizen Lab and Weiboscope are also featuring images and keywords on, which help to “provide a view into the censored history of June 4.” See also a TIME article detailing the work of Weiboscope to preserve over 1,000 censored posts related to the memory of June 4, 1989.

On the anniversary of the student-led 1989 Chinese democracy movement, CDT is also reposting original stories from 30 years ago, which trace how the public show of solidarity for the deceased Hu Yaobang progressed to the violent crackdown on protesters on June 4, 1989.


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