A ray of hope for Chinese progressives


HONG KONG — The recent political rehabilitation of former party chief Hu Yaobang, whose death in April 1989 triggered massive student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, is encouraging to the progressive wing of the Chinese Communist Party, even though there is little indication that the current leadership is about to ease its hardline policies anytime soon.

The fact that the late leader was honored on the 90th anniversary of his birth by the top leadership does not mean that the party is about to reverse its position on the June 4 massacre. While his death was the catalyst for the demonstrations and subsequent crackdown, the former party chief personally had nothing to do with it.

In the long run, though, the Chinese leadership will be bound to reassess the decision to use tanks against unarmed students. It may not be while President Hu Jintao is the party leader, but it will happen at some point.

The late Hu was undoubtedly the most liberal leader that the party had ever produced. While party chief, he took the bold step of apologizing for the actions of the party in Tibet. He even proposed that Chinese use knives and forks instead of chopsticks for hygienic reasons. He called on Deng, his mentor, to go into full retirement — a move that did not endear him to the latter’s heart. And he was forced to step down as party chief in 1987 for refusing to crack down on student demonstrators.

Hu Yaobang is held in high regard by many of the party faithful to a large extent because he had personally rehabilitated some 3 million party members who had been wrongly persecuted during such political campaigns as the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 — political campaigns launched by Chairman Mao Zedong.

Coincidentally, the ceremony to honor Hu Yaobang took place three days after the death, at 91, of another party elder and reformer, Ren Zhongyi, former party leader of Guangdong. Ren knew about the rehabilitation of Hu and, before his death, contributed an article to a special issue of the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu dedicated to the memory of Hu.

After his retirement in 1985, Ren became an outspoken critic of the party’s reluctance to introduce political reforms. In an interview last year, he said Deng’s mistake was his failure to push forward political reforms as well as economic changes.

In April 2000, he wrote an article in the Nanfang Ribao, the official paper of the Guangzhou party committee, in which he tackled the problem posed by the “four cardinal principles” enunciated by Deng and which all party members are meant to observe.

The four principles can be boiled down to one: Maintain the party’s leadership. But Ren wrote that it is impossible to preserve the party’s leadership without first improving it. And “improving leadership means that the situation in which no one can constrain the party has to end,” Ren said.

“Improving the leadership of the party means establishing a system that can effectively supervise and constrain the party. . . . Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Communist Party is no exception to that rule. The Communist Party supervising itself is like having the left hand supervise the right hand. That just won’t do. The party needs to be supervised not just by the party but by the people.”

Interestingly, the article was reprinted in two other Chinese publications, suggesting that there are other people in positions of authority in the country who feel it is important to disseminate those subversive ideas.

In the long run, change in China is more likely to come from critics of the party from within than from outside, though it is still important for there to be outside critics; otherwise, the world will simply be pretending that all is well in China when that is not the case.

One such outside critic last week was President George W. Bush, who told China that it should emulate Taiwan and become democratic. “As China reforms its economy,” Bush said in a speech in Kyoto, “its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed. As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well.”

China’s leaders no doubt found it galling to be compared unfavorably to Taiwan. But while China resents outsiders saying these things in public, the sad fact is that these are things that need to be said. And if Bush doesn’t tell it like it is to China, no other world leader will.