BEIJING — "I am not a man of iron. I am a man of passion, of flesh and blood." --Hu Yaobang
What triggered China's long spring of turmoil was a medical event that no one could have predicted--a malfunction in the circulatory system of a diminutive, embittered and lonely 73-year-old man.
On Saturday, April 8, during a meeting of the Communist Party Politburo, Hu Yaobang, the one-time general secretary of the party, had a severe heart attack. He died a week later.
Hu was not just some ordinary former leader. His long career--and his fall from grace--had made him the symbol of the frustrations of trying to engineer political change in China from the top. In the eyes of many Chinese intellectuals, Hu had been a victim of the continuing resistance to political liberalization among the party's old guard.
Hu, until then Deng Xiaoping's heir-apparent, had been forced out as party leader in January, 1987, by an "enlarged" meeting of the Politburo, a meeting stacked with elderly leaders who had retired from their positions in the Politburo or with the People's Liberation Army.
In the shorthand of news stories, it is often said now that Hu was forced out because of his failure to crack down on the student demonstrations that had swept across China in late 1986. But those demonstrations had provided only the pretext for Hu's dismissal. The reasons were much more complex. Party elders had been chafing to get rid of Hu for years.
Hu had been a crony and protege of Deng's for decades. As head of the Communist Youth League, he had built that organization into a network of reform-minded leaders eager to modernize China and to distance themselves from the legacy of Mao Tse-tung. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hu's allies from the Youth League had fanned out across the provinces to press for economic and political reforms.
In 1981, Deng had appointed his trusted aide to be general secretary of the party. From the outset, Hu had dared to challenge the perks and privileges of the party's elite. In his first speech after taking over as party secretary, Hu had stood before 10,000 party members in the Great Hall of the People and spoken of the need for younger blood in the party leadership.
Old comrades in the party "would be committing an unforgivable historical error if they did not redouble their efforts to train younger successors," Hu said. Witnesses that day say the audience, made up largely of older cadres, could manage only lukewarm applause.
Throughout the early and mid-1980s, Hu had propounded a vision of China that did not appeal to the party elders. He favored allowing--indeed, encouraging--the people to buy more consumer goods, in the belief that consumption, rather than Stalinist-style production, could serve as the engine to drive the Chinese economy.
In cultural terms, Hu stood for encouraging China to Westernize as rapidly as possible, following along the lines of Japan's modernization during the Meiji Restoration period of the late 19th Century. He once urged Chinese to abandon their chopsticks for knives and forks. "By doing so," he explained, "we can avoid contagious diseases."
Even in his personal dress and style, Hu conveyed the image of a Chinese peasant in a hurry to Westernize. On one fall day in 1986, when Hu greeted Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on a trip to China, he wore a natty brown Western suit, with his padded Chinese long underwear showing above the top of his socks.
Most of all, Hu Yaobang had repeatedly attacked the party elders, challenging their privileges and their eagerness to cling to power.
Who were these party elders? Many of them--leaders such as Chen Yun, Wang Zhen, Peng Zhen and Bo Yibo--were contemporaries and old friends of Deng, men in their 80s, veterans of the Long March and the Communist Party's long revolutionary struggle.
Most of these octogenarians were former military leaders who retained close ties to the People's Liberation Army. They served, together with senior army leaders, on organizations such as the party's Central Advisory Commission. The elderly party leaders and old marshals of the PLA socialized with one another, commemorating the Long March, the days in the Communist base camp at Yanan, the civil war, old battles and old glories.
Other party elders were slightly younger men, in their 70s, who were openly opposed to the ideological changes accompanying Deng's economic reforms. For example, Hu Qiaomu (no relative of Hu Yaobang), a leader who had once been Mao's personal secretary, warned, "We should overcome the unhealthy tendency among some people of putting money above all else, or even judging a person's social status by his income."
In the summer of 1986, Chinese sources said, Hu Yaobang bluntly suggested that all of China's elderly leaders--even Deng--should retire. In one interview he told Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co., that China had "abolished the practice of putting emphasis on the role of one man's power."