China Honors Reformist Whose Death Sparked Protests

China's Communist party pays homage to one of its most reform-minded leaders, a man the party had practically erased from history. But Friday's ceremony for Hu Yaobang, whose death helped spark the Tiananmen Square protests, wasn't the endorsement of more progressive politics that some Chinese had hoped for.

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A remarkable reappearing act took place in China today. The Communist Party paid homage to a reformer who had been all but airbrushed out of history. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The late Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang's death in April 1989 set off a public outpouring of grief. This quickly morphed into the pro-democracy protests that culminated in a Tiananmen Square massacre that year. There's been hardly any public mention of Hu since then, until today.

(Soundbite of Chinese evening news)

Unidentified Woman: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: The evening news on Chinese state television showed some 300 government officials and elderly invitees sitting stiffly in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. Vice President Zeng Qinghong praised Hu as a tried and true proletarian revolutionary, citing his commitment to reform and his closeness to the common people. Given Hu Yaobang's liberalism and his connection to the Tiananmen protests, some observers have called the commemorations a bold move by the otherwise cautious President Hu Jintao. But Beijing-based political scientist Liu Junning sees it differently.

Mr. LIU JUNNING (Political Scientist): (Through Translator) At the moment, many people have doubts about whether reforms will continue. They don't see any new commitments to pursue in reform. So perhaps commemorating Hu is a gesture to counter these doubts. After all, Hu Yaobang is associated with reform.

KUHN: President Hu Jintao, who is not related to Hu Yaobang, was conspicuously absent from today's events. In consolidating his own leadership, Hu has worked to tighten controls on the media, public protests and non-governmental organizations. His reforms have been aimed mostly at streamlining the bureaucracy and strengthening the party's grip on power. Jin Zhong is the editor in chief of the Hong Kong-based China-watching monthly Open Magazine.

Mr. JIN ZHONG (Editor In Chief, Open Magazine): (Through Translator) If you're really going to commemorate Hu Yaobang, inherit and promote his popular policies, then you should do something about political reform, even a minor gesture. But there hasn't been any. President Hu has been in power for three years and has turned in a blank test paper.

KUHN: As the party's leader from 1981 to 1987, Hu Yaobang laid the groundwork for China's reforms by dismantling the cult of Chairman Mao. He rehabilitated millions of Chinese who had been labeled as capitalists, spies or counter-revolutionaries under Mao and thrown into labor camps. The late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once designated Hu as his successor, but Hu was criticized for being soft on liberalism and forced to resign in 1987. None of this was mentioned in today's commemorations. In fact, Hu was born 90 years ago on Sunday, but a commemoration that day would clash with President Bush's visit so the leadership decided to hold this event first. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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