China marks centenary of leader whose death sparked Tiananmen protest

Any commemoration to be low-key as Hu Yaobang remains divisive figure

China will commemorate the centenary of the birth of the liberal Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, over the next week, but he is not likely to be rehabilitated.

Hu, who was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in 1980, promoted reform in China, for which he was forced to resign in 1987, with the leadership deciding the liberal leader had made “grave errors” in tolerating “bourgeois liberalisation”.

He became a symbol for liberalisation and reform. The problem with rehabilitating him is that Xi Jinping’s administration is focused on economic reform, but in political terms it has overseen an ideological tightening and a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent. However, Mr Xi’s anti-graft campaign is in tune with Hu Yaobang’s efforts to control official corruption.

Hu died on April 15th, 1989, at the age of 74, and thousands of students thronged Tiananmen Square to mourn his passing. They stayed for weeks, occupying the square and other key parts of the city, until June 4th when troops moved in and killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of students and democracy demonstrators in Beijing.


His son, Hu Dehua, said there were activities planned for his home town of Liuyang, and there would be a formal ceremony in Beijing on November 20th.

State media

Commemorative events in 2005 were attended by then premier Wen Jiabao and vice-president

Zeng Qinghong

, but any events are kept low-key because Hu remains such a divisive figure.

Local media said Hu's speeches would be edited and published, and five episodes of a documentary called Hu Yaobang were due to air on CCTV 1 in November.

There have been articles in official state media, focusing on his anti-corruption stance, which is seen as a way of making Hu a hero of the anti-graft campaign and gently easing him back in to official favour.

No articles in the official media make reference to Hu’s role as a catalyst for the democracy movement in 1989.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing