Hu Yaobang

Hu Yaobang was often viewed as the leader most inclined to reform after the death of Mao Zedong.  He considered Mao’s ideas impractical for modern China, a belief which did not endear him towards his colleagues.  He had become the people’s champion when he refused to put down student demonstrations in the 1986 student movement.  His death prompted the Tian An Men Square protests.

Some people would argue, though, that it was not the loss of his voice that prompted the protests. By the time of his death, he had very little influence in the Party. He was a political has-been and no one expected the reaction that his death prompted. Some said that he only served as a catalyst for the reform movement.

Hu was born in Hunan province in 1915.  At the age of 14, he ran away from home and joined the communist party and was one of the youngest participants of the Long March.  Later, he became a political officer under Deng Xiaoping in the military.  At the founding of the CCP in 1949, he followed Deng to Beijing.  From this point on, Hu spent his career in Deng’s shadow, working as his protégé.  In 1966, Hu was purged with Deng as a capitalist roadster.  When Deng was reinstated in 1973 and then purged again in 1976, Hu shared his fate.

Hu truly rose to power after the implementation of Deng’s Four Modernizations.  Under Deng’s protection, he became General Secretary of the party in 1980, then became Party Chairman in 1981, replacing Hua Guofeng as the leader of the People’s Republic of China. Then, in 1987, he was forced to take responsibility for the student protests of the previous year.  He resigned from his position as Chairman, but remained a member of the Politburo until his death in 1989.  On April 15, 1989, he suffered from a heart attack during a Politburo meeting.  He was taken to the hospital, but never recovered.

Thousands of people gathered across the country to commemorate Hu's legacy.  Although his eagerness for modernization sometimes bordered on impracticality - he at one time suggested that the Chinese stop using chopsticks to prevent the spread of disease - many people feared that his death would mean the end of social reforms.  His death led students to call for conversation between themselves and the government, which escalated to the April-May sit in at the Square when their protestests went unanswered.