Today marks 30 years since the death of Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the Communist Party of China between 1982 and 1987. Reputed to have been of rather liberal leaning as regards human rights and democratisation, he was ousted by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, whose choice as successor, Zhao Ziyang, only continued to espouse Hu’s line. And paid for it. But I’m running ahead of my yarn.
Hu’s death sparked an upsurge of clamour (N.B.: no social media then) for human rights, democracy and action on official corruption. Zhao no doubt stoked it, relying on ferment among intellectuals and students at leading universities. Workers were initially out of the picture. But their resentment over the pro-capitalist reforms introduced by Deng in the late 1970s simmered beneath. The populace had already suffered greatly under more than two decades of collectivisation (of land, factories etc) including a horrific decade of “cultural revolution” drama aimed at buttressing Mao Zedong’s hold on power laced with ultra-nationalist drivel. Tens of millions of lives lost, by several estimates.
Public demands to properly honour Hu, the marches and so forth were exhilarating. Zhao obliged, bizarrely praising Hu as a “great proletarian revolutionist”. This didn’t go down well: No, not with the proletariat (most of whom had little use for nor inkling of such speechifying) but among Deng and his cronies. Official publications initially under Zhao’s command praised the pro-democracy student demonstrators.
But Zhao had played his cards badly. The Deng line prevailed within the CPC. About a month after Hu’s death – and even as hundreds and often thousands of students thronged central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – the CPC leadership ditched Zhao.
Martial Law was proclaimed in parts of Beijing on May 21. (Incidentally, ML had been imposed in Chinese-occupied Tibet earlier that year but that’s another story.)
This had no effect on the students camping out in Tiananmen. Behind their zeal lay months and years of groundwork by intellectuals such as the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and journalist Liu Binyan and others, not to mention the “Democracy Wall” movement of the late 1970s and not to forget that an earlier similar protest following a top leader’s death – that in 1976 of Zhou Enlai – had Deng’s hand all over it.
By late May, the military was in place. Battle tanks showed up in central Beijing. On the night of June 3 to June 4, the rebellion was quashed. Meanwhile, Zhao had been stripped of all but his CPC membership. Replaced by Shanghai colleague Jiang Zemin who did zilch other than obeying Deng, who in 1992 called for the unleashing of robber baron capitalism – “socialist market economy” was the euphemism used.
Result: China has grown and how! Decades of runaway GDP growth – widening inequality sparking thousands of workers’ strikes annually and the despoiling of the environment, with global consequences.
The animals outside look on as a regime that persists in invoking Marx – now under arguably the most authoritarian dispensation led by Xi Jinping since the1970s – cavorts with mostly homegrown business behemoths and assorted foreign specimens.
P.S.: Why should a resident of a city in southern Asia bother about what transpired in a city in the continent’s northeast?
- I was a journalist based in Beijing 1988-1994 and Hong Kong mostly 1995-2012.
- The four hyphenated words in my text.
See also: UPTURNED BOTTLE, DEAD DEER AND MAY 35th