Hu Yaobang, second in command to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, resigned Friday as the head of the world’s largest Communist party after the party leadership announced that he had confessed to “mistakes on major issues of political principles.”
The Communist Party said that Premier Zhao Ziyang will become the party’s “acting general secretary.” No replacement for Zhao was announced Friday, but a selection could be made within the next few days.
A party communique said that Hu “made a self-criticism” to a hastily arranged gathering of high-ranking party leaders and that the group agreed to accept his resignation. Hu will be permitted to keep his seat in the party’s Politburo and on its five-man Standing Committee, the communique added.
It was the first top-level leadership change in China since 1981, when Deng and his supporters induced Hua Guofeng, Mao Tse-tung’s handpicked successor, to step down as head of the Communist Party.
Wears Mao Jacket
The resignation was first made public on China’s evening television news show. Local radio shows had earlier urged the nation to watch the program. To symbolize the cultural shift, the anchorman announcing the news wore a Mao jacket rather than the customary Western suit and tie.
As party general secretary, the 71-year-old Hu was the No. 1 official in the 44-million-member Chinese Communist Party. But the entire party and nation realized that he was second in influence to Deng, with whom Hu had worked for more than four decades. Deng holds the reins of power as chairman of the party’s Military Commission.
Hu’s sudden resignation, after six years as party secretary, calls into question the future direction of China’s Communist Party and the extent to which orthodox Marxists within the party will permit continuing efforts at economic or political reforms.
It also raises once again the problem of who will take charge of China after Deng, who is 82, retires or dies. For the time being, it would appear that Zhao, 67, who has pressed for economic liberalization but not political reform, is the leading candidate to take over.
Hu stepped down after a long and bitter dispute within the party over the degree to which the regime should tolerate political liberalization and greater freedom for intellectuals.
Last spring, under Hu’s leadership, Chinese officials and newspapers began to permit discussion of the need for greater democracy in China, for the airing of dissenting points of view and for checks and balances on the power of the party.
Party conservatives at first voiced little public opposition and bided their time. But at the beginning of this year, after a series of student demonstrations across China in support of democracy, the party leadership made an abrupt about-face.
The regime launched a new campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” and against “total Westernization” in China. It is now insisting on strict adherence to the concept that the Communist Party leads China and is the vanguard of “the people’s democratic dictatorship.”
The communique issued by the party leadership Friday urged all party members to fight “bourgeois liberalization.” At the same time, the communique urged cadres to “continue the all-round reforms and the policies of opening to the rest of the world and invigorating the domestic economy.”
Some Peking-based analysts said Friday that they are certain Deng intends to continue with the modernization program and pragmatic economic policies he has been pursuing since 1978. But others said they felt that Hu’s sudden resignation will have a serious impact on the reforms and China’s political future.
“Whatever happens, even in the best-case scenario, this will slow down the economic reforms,” said one Western European diplomat. “And it will undermine confidence in the regime, both abroad and at home.”
Another Western analyst said he felt that the resignation and the accompanying political crackdown will seriously affect the regime’s ability to win the enthusiasm of intellectuals.
“Part of the purpose of the (political reform) campaign was to encourage intellectuals to contribute to China’s modernization,” he said. “You simply have to have the support of intellectuals. They’re the ones who build the computers and do the things you need to modernize.”
The political in-fighting at the highest ranks of the Communist Party has been exacerbated by the approach of a national party congress, the first one in five years. At that gathering, which will be held this autumn, the party has been expected to announce a new leadership lineup, which might settle the question of who will control the party after Deng.
Succession to Deng
For the past two years, the speculation in China had been that Deng would seek to ensure perpetuation of his policies by announcing his retirement at the congress and installing Hu in the crucial post of head of the party’s Military Commission.
One of Hu’s proteges, Politburo member Hu Qili, 57, a leading proponent of political reform, would then have been installed as head of the Communist Party.
But analysts believe that these plans went awry when military leaders refused to accept Hu Yaobang’s leadership and conservatives within the party opposed Hu Qili.
Sources say that at one meeting in Shanghai in November, party conservatives engaged in a shouting match with Hu Qili, telling him he was too young and did not understand the consequences of his actions.
Increasingly, conservative forces within the party began urging Deng not to retire because they did not want Hu Yaobang to take over. Their efforts succeeded. Last Tuesday, Deng told a Japanese visitor, “It seems that I have to continue to work.”
A report Friday in the Japanese Yomiuri newspaper said that last September, during a meeting of the party’s 209-member Central Committee, Hu Yaobang had proposed that Deng retire in order to rejuvenate the party. It said that leading conservatives had defeated the move.
Positioned for Comeback
The decision Friday by the party leaders to let Hu keep his seats on the Politburo and Standing Committee is significant. The Standing Committee is the party’s highest-level body. Its other members are Deng, Zhao and two ailing conservative leaders, Chinese President Li Xiannian and economic strategist Chen Yun.
From this position, Hu is at least theoretically in position to try to come back into power at some later time--just as Deng, his patron and tutor, did after he was banished from the leadership in April of 1976, five months before Mao Tse-tung’s death.
The party document issued Friday did not give any details of Hu’s alleged “self-criticism.” It said his political mistakes were “in violation of the party’s principle of collective leadership” but did not describe his errors.
The group of party leaders who met to accept Hu’s resignation was not any specific, official body of the Communist Party. It was described only as “an enlarged meeting” of the party Politburo.
According to the communique, 20 of the 22 members or alternate members of the Politburo took part. So did four members of the party Secretariat, 17 members of the Central Advisory Commission and two members of the party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
Question of Premier
The group said that the decisions to accept Hu’s resignation and appoint Zhao as acting general secretary will be submitted to the next session of the party Central Committee for confirmation.
The communique did not specify whether Zhao will now be replaced as premier or will hold both jobs. It referred to Zhao as “Comrade,” a party designation, and not as premier.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, is now in session and would have the authority to choose a new premier.
As party leaders were meeting in Peking, the program to combat bourgeois influences continued at local levels.
In Shanghai, municipal Communist Party secretary Rui Xingwen met with students from 10 local universities to criticize the trend toward bourgeois liberalization.
According to the official New China News Agency, Rui told the students “that the multiparty system advocated by a small number of people is used in foreign countries to represent different classes with the support of big financial groups.”
The party secretary said that in China, a multiparty system “would split up the nation.”