Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hu Hearts Hu

Fascinating analysis by the New York Times Joseph Kahn (via the International Herald Tribune) about the pending rehabilitation of CCP reformer (and Tiananmen, "well, it's not really about him, but his death is a good excuse" icon) Hu Yaobang - specifically, what this wrangling over Hu Yaobang's post-mortem reputation signals about the factionalization of China's leadership. And it's not necessarily what you might think:
The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, early this year decided to mark the 90th anniversary of Hu Yaobang's birth. Party observers said President Hu aimed to soften his hard-line image and strengthen the Communist Youth League, his political base within the Communist Party. The youth league was considered the support network of the Hu Yaobang, who lost his position as Communist Party general secretary after a power struggle in 1987. The two Hus are not related.

While restoring the stature of Hu Yaobang is unlikely to lead to broad political openings - the party leadership has steadily tightened its grip over civil society and the media, for example - it does give a glimpse of the complex politicking that takes places among the ruling elite.

It also shows the enduring sensitivity about the people and events connected with the 1989 protests. Political observers say the June 4 killings will haunt the party until it acknowledges having bloodily suppressed the mainly peaceful pro-democracy protests and until it pays respect to the hundreds of people killed, injured or purged as a result of the unrest.

President Hu persisted with marking the anniversary of his Hu Yaobang even though four of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body, expressed concern that the move could threaten stability, people told about the debate said.

The four, one of whom was Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, were said to have different reasons for opposing the commemoration. But all argued that the move is potentially risky given the circumstances surrounding the 1989 demonstrations.

Honoring Hu Yaobang could give people the idea that the demonstrations, which the party has condemned as a massive antigovernment plot, are open for discussion, these people said.

Opposition to the commemoration was first reported earlier this month by Open, a Hong Kong-based political magazine, and was confirmed by people close to the late leader's family.

President Hu is said to have overruled the objections and ordered the commemoration to proceed, arguing that while students may have invoked Hu Yaobang's name when their protest began, but the former leader had no responsibility for the demonstrations.
With so much ideological freight attached, it's no wonder that arrangements for the rehabilitation ceremony are somewhat complicated:
People close to Hu Yaobang's family said at least three members of the Politburo standing committee will attend the Beijing event...Wen will make an appearance despite having expressed concern that restoring Hu Yaobang's stature could lead to calls to rehabilitate Zhao Ziyang, who succeeded Hu Yaobang as party chief. Zhao, who died last year, was harshly condemned for siding with protesters against the party during the 1989 unrest. He spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest.
What's especially intriguing about all these machinations (to those of us who follow such things, anyway), is how they turn on their head and invert the typical paradigms by which we evaluate China's leaders and political direction. I mean, if Hu Yaobang equals symbol of reform and liberalization, then supporting his rehabilitation must be a sign of greater openness and reform, right?

Not necessarily so:
Since taking over the party leadership in 2002, President Hu has rejected ideas for political liberalization and pursued a sustained crackdown on the press, nongovernment organizations, the legal profession and religious groups he views as threatening the party's hold on power.

Plans to honor Hu Yaobang prompted some Chinese journalists and party officials to speculate that President Hu might begin pursuing a more moderate governing style now that he has largely consolidated his power.

But many observers said they believe that the president is instead working to shore up the influence of Communist Youth League veterans much as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, often protected and promoted people associated with the Shanghai party apparatus, his longtime base.
As entertaining as it is to speculate about what this signals regarding China's leadership and its future direction, I will once again fall back on that old Zhou Enlai quote, when asked for his opinion of the French Revolution: "It's too soon to say."

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