China marks Hu Yaobang centenary

Analysts say it shows Xi Jinping's keenness to capitalise on late leader's reformist legacy

China's top leaders commemorated the 100th birthday of late Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Hu Yaobang yesterday, in the latest move to rehabilitate a popular but controversial figure in the party's history.

Analysts told The Straits Times that the move underscores President Xi Jinping's keenness to capitalise on Mr Hu's reformist legacy, at a time when he is burnishing his own leadership credentials and trying to remake the CCP.

Calling Mr Hu an "outstanding leader" who contributed greatly to nation-building, Mr Xi yesterday urged the party to learn from the late leader's "pragmatism and courage" in tackling tough problems so that they can make progress in reform and development. The event marks another step in the rehabilitation of Mr Hu, whose name was barely mentioned for many years because of political sensitivities.

Known as a reformist and liberal, Mr Hu was CCP general secretary when the late Deng Xiaoping was the country's paramount leader.

He was handpicked by Mr Deng to drive China's reform agenda, but was unceremoniously purged in 1987 for being too lenient with student protesters that year, and for tolerating "bourgeois liberalisation". The most sensitive part of Mr Hu's legacy, however, was that his death from a heart attack in 1989 catalysed the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, which eventually led to a bloody crackdown by the authorities.

The Tiananmen incident is still a taboo subject in the country.

It was not until 2005 that China publicly commemorated Mr Hu.

Yesterday's event was held on a bigger scale. At the Great Hall of the People, all seven members of the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee gathered to remember Mr Hu, with Mr Xi praising him for his willingness to break new ground.

With the country still going through a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, Mr Xi also stressed that the party should learn from Mr Hu's "upright, incorruptible and self-disciplined" ways to win the trust and support of the people.

"Mr Xi is trying to ride on the reputation of Mr Hu as a reformer," said Peking University political analyst Zhang Jian. "By invoking his name, he's trying to send a message that he is a reformer as well."

Chinese politics expert Bo Zhiyue said Mr Xi is personally sympathetic towards Mr Hu as well. Mr Xi's father was known for being the only one among party elders who stood up for Mr Hu when he was about to be purged.

The CCP had earlier this year signalled the importance it placed on the event, by naming it as one of the four key commemoration dates of 2015. Mr Xi's speech capped a series of events marking the centenary, which included a symposium held by the Central Party School press office and the launch of a collection of Mr Hu's speeches and works, some of which have never been published before.

Party mouthpiece People's Daily devoted almost an entire page yesterday to expounding the important points of the collection. A five-part documentary on Mr Hu's life also began airing on state broadcaster CCTV yesterday. Separately, a Global Times editorial on Wednesday said Mr Hu "deserves our respect".

Given the considerable moral authority within the party that Mr Hu wielded after he "liberated" thousands of CCP officials purged by party founder Mao Zedong, Prof Bo believes that Mr Xi may also have an eye on party unity in commemorating Mr Hu.

"Xi has nothing to lose by doing this," said Prof Bo. "But he is being very selective. In reality, Xi is far more of a leftist than Hu."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'China marks Hu Yaobang centenary'. Print Edition | Subscribe