This week witnessed the 25th anniversary of the death of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, an event that ignited student demonstrations throughout China, but most famously in Beijing — we all know the story. It was only two days after his death that the students began flooding into Tiananmen Square.
It is a futile exercise to look at the life of Hu Yaobang and ask, “What if…?” But it’s hard not to wonder. What if he had not been demoted in 1987 and if his program for political and economic reforms were put further into place? A touching interview with his son, Hu Dehua, looks at the opportunities China lost with Hu’s demotion. I enjoyed the part recounting how Hu spoke out against slavish devotion to Mao Zedong.
Twenty-five years after his death, Hu is still best remembered by many for his liberal boldness in freeing China from the strictures of Maoist dogma.
Hu Dehua said one of the most memorable exchanges he had with his father came at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. The senior Hu asked his teenage son whether he thought the popular slogan of the era – “Everything we do is for Chairman Mao; All our thoughts are of Chairman Mao; and in all our actions we closely follow and obey Chairman Mao” – was correct.
Having seen it published in state newspapers, the younger Hu said he did not question its veracity. “Can’t you use your brains? This is clearly problematic,” Hu quoted his father as saying. “Everything we do should be for the people, not for Mao.”
Forty-six years later, Hu Dehua can still vividly recall how shocked he was when his father uttered these words. “It felt as if I’d been struck by lightning – people dared not speak like that in those days,” Hu said of the decade that ensued, when criticism of Mao could result in persecution, prison or death.
“From that moment on, I knew my father was an exceptional man,” Hu, 65, said. “He did not follow the herd.”
The Global Times, ever true to form, this week published a remembrance of Hu that dances masterfully around the fact that his death led to a catastrophe that even today taints people’s perceptions of China. I love the “For reasons known to all.”
For reasons known to all, Hu is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media. Remarks about him that frequently appear on the Internet are often swayed away from official line, given that some either intentionally quoted Hu out of context or reevaluated Hu based on their own values.
The CPC Central Committee has made official judgment on Hu twice from his death to 2005. The authoritative and mature commemoration judgment has stood the test of time. Some grass roots recalled and discussed Hu from their individual angles at different times and for varied reasons. We’d like to share our views against those personal comments.
The official judgment on Hu is well-defended. When commemorating the 90th anniversary of Hu’s birth, the authorities praised his glorious life while circumventing the political controversy of his later years. It’s right to do so. Hu has been written into the history of the nation and the Party as absolutely a positive spirit. Avoiding controversy shows not only respect for Hu but also a responsibility for the course of the Party and the country. This is also the case with judging other late Chinese leaders, one of the prerequisites to ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.
That’s right. Scrub all the controversy out of the public consciousness to “ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.” There is no need to look at the past and learn from it. If the memory is pesky, erase it.
One of the most gripping articles I’ve read this week commemorating the start of the Tiananmen demonstrations is from NPR, chronicling the uprising in Chengdu. It reads like a thriller. And it is balanced, and makes a point I’ve tried to make in past posts about the “incident” — the students were not all angels, and there were violent acts perpetrated against police and soldiers. But the violence against the demonstrators was on a far greater scale, and, I believe, could have been averted.
At a nearby medical clinic, the bloodied victims of police brutality lay in rows on the floor. Kim Nygaard, an American resident of Chengdu, recalled that they begged her: “Tell the world! Tell the world!”
A row of patients sat on a bench, their cracked skulls swathed in bandages, their shirts stained scarlet near the collar, visceral evidence of the police strategy of targeting protesters’ heads.
But the violence went both ways: Dennis Rea, an American then teaching at a local university, watched, horrified, as the crowd viciously attacked a man they believed to be a policeman. The crowd pulled at his arms and legs, then dropped him on the ground and began stomping on his body and face, crushing it.
I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989, and for the first time in my life I was able to afford cable TV. I remember watching riveted as CNN covered the story of the student demonstrations nonstop. Although at that time I had no burning interest in Chinese affairs I was transfixed by the drama of young people defying a totalitarian government and watching each day just how far they were able to go, with the government seemingly paralyzed. Of course, the government finally overcame its paralysis, and again, we all know the story.
There has been debate among bloggers as to whether we should continue blogging about Tiananmen Square, that it’s time to let go and move on. To me, it is an important part of China’s modern history and should never be forgotten. And it can never be forgiven until the government releases its archives, tells the truth about what actually happened on June 4th, and hopefully offers something of an apology. For many Chinese, memories of the massacre remain acute, especially those who lost loved ones or who witnessed the violence firsthand. The NPR piece relates the story of a Chengdu mother, Tang Deyang, who seeks justice for her son, beaten to death by the Chengdu police during the crackdown there. The government uses all means possible to shut her mouth.
What happened in Chengdu 25 years ago matters enough that the local government continues to devote financial and human resources to muzzling Tang. Her treatment shows how scared the Chinese authorities are of their own recent history.
A quarter-century ago, the government used guns and batons to suppress its own people. Now it is deploying more sophisticated tools of control — censorship of the media and the falsification of its own history — to build patriotism and create a national identity.
Though China’s citizens have become undeniably richer and freer in the post-Tiananmen era, Tang Deying’s experience shows the limits to that freedom. Simply by keeping alive a memory that others have suppressed or simply forgotten, Tang has become seen as a threat to social stability.
What happened in Chengdu matters because it shows the success of the Chinese government in not just controlling its people, but also in controlling their memories. In the China of today, that most personal space of all — memory — has become a political tool.
“The People’s Republic of Amnesia.” I believe in keeping the memory of Tiananmen Square alive. It must not be airbrushed out of the Chinese psyche. It is impossible to understand contemporary China without understanding the causes and effects of the demonstrations. The memory mustn’t die.
Over the past ten years I have put up scores of posts about the crackdown on the students, and as June 4th approaches I will repost the best ones here.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.