For the majority of foreigners in China, it is easy to remember the big names that have become the stalwarts of CCP history, namely Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. But the passing of November 20 this year marks the 100th birthday of an individual who is just as important, if not as well known: Hu Yaobang.
Hu Yaobang played many important roles throughout his life, both as a family man and a career politician. In addition to having the distinction of serving as both Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he is also remembered as a loving father and grandfather.
A studious individual, Hu never let his lofty position within the government stop him from being an honest but humorous individual who loved to play bridge and was sympathetic and kind to those around him.
Hu Yaobang came from humble origins. His ancestors belonged to a minority group known as the Hakka and his parents were poor farmers. Born in Hunan province, from a young age Hu loved to study and often earned top marks in class. He was also a drummer for the school band. Here he is seen (in the white shirt) with his classmates at their graduation ceremony.
In 1927, the Autumn Uprising was crushed while Hu Yaobang was still a student in the city of Wenjia. Coincidentally, a young Mao paid a visit to the city where he delivered a speech at Hu’s school. Hu Yaobang and his friends were in attendance.
Two years later Hu embarked on his career as a revolutionary when in 1932 he joined as member of a youth organization in Communist territory. Another two years later, Hu followed the retreating Communists during the Long March.
The reporter Edgar Snow recorded many of his observation of the CCP during their stay at Yan’an in his book Random notes on Red China. He provides a list of 15 leading members, among which Hu ranked at number 10. While Mao was just beginning to gain prominence as a leader, Hu was also quickly ascending through the ranks having been appointed Deputy Director of the Political Department at the Chinese People’s Anti-Japan Military and Political College.
He later took office as the Deputy Minister of the Central Military Commission’s General Political Department before moving on to other positions within the Party. Here Hu is giving a speech next to his friend Yang Yong, who was with him in Wenjia City.
In 1945, Hu requested to be sent to the front as a political commissar as part of the War of Liberation in Manchuria. He led troops as they pushed northwest and southwest. In 1950, Hu was relieved of command as the Director of the Political Department of the 18th Infantry Corps, whereupon he became the highest ranking leader in the north.
This picture was taken in 1947 and depicts Hu at Pingshan Northern Watchtower delivering a field report at a political work conference.
In 1952, Hu was transferred to Beijing as Secretary of the Central Group. He reportedly got along very well with everyone he met. At meal time, he ate just as everyone else did, and seldom put on airs. Hu loved to makes new friends with young people and would often invite them home to celebrate the New Year with him. In this photo from August 20 in 1956, Hu is seen chatting with a student.
That Mao would have Hu give pep talks was no secret. During the 1950s, Mao would often have him participate in important youth events. However, Hu’s silence during the 1958 Lushan Conference (during which Peng Dehuai, critic of the Great Leap Forward, was purged) caused Mao to become disappointed and concerned about his loyalties. June 1964 – Mao and Zhou Enlai attend Hu’s Ninth National Communist Youth League Conference.
Mao had the Red Guards detained and interrogate Hu and eight other men at Tiananmen, where they were subsequently denounced, beaten, publicly humiliated and forced to clean toilets (a common fate for victims of the Cultural Revolution). He would suffer this fate once more before Deng finally came to power.
Hu was an avid smoker, but after his purge his captors did not allow him to buy cigarettes, so he would instead pick up their discarded cigarette butts for a quick smoke. 1968 – Hu Yaobang, Hu Keshi, and Wang Wei are publicly criticized by Red Guards.
From 1969 to 1972, Hu was pressed into labor at the May 7 Cadre School. Somewhat fortunately for him, his persecutors were unable to determine a verdict for his accused “rightist activities,” leading him to spend the next three years under house arrest.
It was not until 1975 that Hu found work again at the Chinese Academy of Science, where he worked to protect its members from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. 1980 – Hu talks with CAS scholar Mao Yisheng.
1977 saw Hu rehabilitated and appointed as both Vice Chancellor of the Central Party School and Minister of the Organization Department. During this time he helped establish a magazine called Theoretical Trends, which was devoted to openly discussing societal problems. Here Hu Yaobang is depicted as an attendee of the Third Plenary Session.
In 1980, Deng proposed that Hu take up the post of Chairman. Arguing that the position of Chairman was much too important to entrust to him, and that Deng was better off taking the post himself, Hu refused a grand total of ten times.
Finally, Deng was able to force the issue, telling Hu that the decision had been made by the Party and he was obligated to obey. 1981 – the two men stand side-by-side in Manchuria during a military parade.
May 22, 1980 – an ageing Hu and Wanli travel to Tibet for an inspection. His 65 years of age did not prepare him for the rigors of Tibet and he was taken ill with a high fever. Here Hu poses for a group photo with Tibetan children near the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
July 24, 1983 – Hu and a local work brigade observe Tibetan herdsmen at the Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province.
September 30, 1984 – Hu Yaobang speaks before 18,000 people at gym in Beijing. In attendance were more than 3000 youths from Japan.
Going into the 1980s, Hu Yaobang began to visit more poor regions of China, such as Yunnan, Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. February 1986 – Hu Yaobang on a visit to Yunnan province joins in on an ethnic dance as they celebrate the Spring Festival together.
Hu was never known to be prone to nepotism, and so his decision to choose Wen Jiabao as Premier of the State Council has been viewed as one based on meritocracy. February 7, 1986 – General Secretary Hu with General Office Director Wen Jiabao, Guizhou Secretary Hu Jintao, and relevant officials from Yunnan on an inspection in Qujing City, Yunnan.
Here Hu is seen wearing a Western style suit while talking with French President Jacques Chirac. Hu would take advantage of his outfit as a means to demonstrate China’s newfound openness to the world. In a 1986 interview with media from four Western European countries, he was seen as a man who wanted to embrace capitalism and strengthen ties with the rest of the world.
From 1983 onward, Hu would go on to embark on diplomatic tours of Japan, Australia, the UK, Germany, France, and Italy. He would even be granted an audience with the Queen of England. June 10, 1986 – Hu talking with a young English student in Stratford.
Hu loved to play bridge, often playing with Deng. Hu’s group, comprised of Nie Weiping, Wanli, and Rongle, would only rarely meet with success when squaring off against Deng’s team.
June 6, 1984 – Beijing holds its first ever “Health and Research” old comrades bridge tournament. Pictured here are Wanli, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Ding Guangen.
Hu Yaobang loved to read. Even during the Cultural Revolution while being forced to do menial labor, he would would take time at night to read. He would often make use of old newspapers to practice his characters. Sometimes he would he would get up from whatever work he was doing and go to another room just to write calligraphy. Here, Hu is seen painting calligraphy while on a train bound for Qinghai and Tibet.
A young Hu would meet the love of his life during his tenure at Yannan when he met Lizhao. Lizhao was also from Hunan, daughter of a general who opposed the Qing Dynasty during the Taiping Rebellion.
In the wake of the Marco Polo Incident that sparked war with Japan, Lizhao sought refuge at Yannan. The two cared deeply for each other and soon married. While fighting on the frontline, Hu would do his best to keep in touch with his wife.
Hu’s family would come to settle in the town of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province where his wife and mother-in-law took up residence, later followed by Hu’s own parents. In this photo, Hu is seen at home with his wife, three children, and grandparents.
Hu would have four children. His eldest, third oldest, and his daughter can be seen by his side here. His second son is however absent, having been sent to Shaanxi under the care of fellow villagers. His daughter remembers him as a kind man and a great mentor who did no harm.
After the Cultural Revolution, Hu’s household could count itself blessed with a large family spanning three generations. Rumor has it that one day, his granddaughter was suffering from a splitting tooth ache. With no one else at home, Hu chose to stay by her side, walking in the yard and telling her stories until someone else returned. 1981 – Hu and his wife with their grandchildren.
In April of 1989, Hu Yaobang passed away after years of service to his nation and his family, often at great expense to his own well-being. He was buried in Gongqing of Jiangxi province. The Editor in Chief of People’s Daily wrote, “He was a good man, pure of heart, generous, and an individual who had captivated the hearts of the people.”
Hu’s demise, however, would precipitate a chain of events that would culminate in a certain bloodbath in the smog capital. In the early years of reform and opening up, Hu found himself caught up in factional party struggles, siding with party elements who were in favor of liberal political and economic reforms.
To satisfy the conservative faction, Deng ultimately sacrificed Hu, who subsequently resigned as General Secretary but retained his position as a member in the Politburo. With social and economic turmoil running through the country, it was ultimately Hu’s death that brought students out onto Tiananmen Square to honor his memory and call for reform. The rest is history.
In spite of this, it is heartening to know that in recent years people have chosen once again to demonstrate their affection for the great reformer. Xi Jinping himself recently said of Hu: “To commemorate Hu Yaobang is to learn from his noble character of always being true to his belief and dedicated to his ideal.”
By Stanley Yu
[Images via Sina]