Chinese Protests Were Only Final Act : Five-Year Power Struggle Led to Hu Yaobang's Fall

Times Staff Writer

For Hu Yaobang, the problems in trying to change China and the world's largest Communist Party began virtually from the moment that he assumed office.

On July 1, 1981, only two days after taking over as head of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu made his debut with a rousing, two-hour address to 10,000 party faithful in the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the party's founding. Hu's theme was the need for younger blood in the leadership. His style was so impassioned, his hand-waving so vigorous, that in mid-speech the new party leader took off his gray Mao jacket and continued in his shirt sleeves.

Citing the words of party elders such as his own patron, China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping, Hu said that old comrades in the party "would be committing an unforgivable historical error if they did not redouble their efforts to train younger successors."

According to witnesses, the audience, made up in large part of older cadres, responded with only lukewarm applause. One of China's leading military figures, Marshal Ye Jianying, had not even bothered to attend.

Last month, after more than five years of almost continuous feuding between his allies and the old guard of the party, Hu lost his job, and with it, the chance to take power in China after Deng retires or dies.

Hu's sudden resignation shattered China's carefully cultivated image of political harmony. Along with Hu's ouster, a fierce political campaign against Western influences and "bourgeois liberalization" in China called into question the direction of the nation's future policies.

To the outside world, Hu's fall from power appeared to be the sudden result of the spread of student demonstrations in China that began in early December. Party leaders, including Deng, blamed the protests on a climate of political liberalization fostered by Chinese intellectuals, and this climate in turn was blamed on Hu.

But an examination of the available record and interviews with foreign analysts and Chinese sources indicate that the student demonstrations merely provided the setting for the final act in a five-year-long drama.

Tradition-minded Communist Party leaders opposed Hu from the outset. They clashed repeatedly with him and his allies in the leadership. Finally, after a half-decade of political skirmishing, they won the support of the military, the party leadership and of Deng himself to replace Hu as party leader.

'Everybody Woke Up'

"The student demonstrations showed the truth of what we had been saying for a long time about bourgeois liberalization. Everybody woke up," said one Chinese source, a conservative party member who has been feuding for years with allies of Hu.

According to sources such as this, it was a classic Chinese power struggle, the roots of which were both intensely ideological and deeply personal.

On the one hand, the two factions waged rhetorical warfare over abstract interpretations of Marxist ideology. One important skirmish, for example, was fought over the meaning of the concept of "alienation in a socialist society." Another was waged over whether loyal party members should be motivated by Communist ideals now, or only in the future.

On the other hand, the battle sometimes took on the nature of a nasty, mudslinging political campaign in which even the families of party leaders were dragged into the fray.

Crackdown on Corruption

At one point a year ago, the conservative faction opposed to Hu persuaded the leadership to launch a crackdown on corruption within the party. That campaign was viewed by many analysts as an oblique challenge by the conservatives to China's reform program--since the underlying message was that by allowing some private enterprise, the regime had opened the door for corruption.

Within a few weeks after the anti-corruption drive began, stories began to circulate in the Hong Kong press that the daughter of one conservative party leader, Peng Zhen, was under investigation for business fraud and that the son of another, Hu Qiaomu (who is no relation to Hu Yaobang), was being investigated on embezzlement charges.

The results of these investigations have never been announced. The conservatives within the party are known to have blamed the leaks on Hu Yaobang and his allies in the reform wing of the party.

Over the last few months, as the effort to oust Hu from the party leadership gathered steam, two conservative party officials played the most prominent roles: Peng Zhen and Hu Qiaomu.

The current tensions and factionalism within the leadership date to the time, eight years ago, when Deng consolidated his control over the party.

At that time, the leaders whose feud came to a head last month stood united behind Deng against a common foe within the party: the followers of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung and his handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng.

"Things were united then, and there were no divisions among us," one official recalled recently.

Deng Made Error

It was at this beginning stage, when Deng's forces were triumphing over the Maoists, that Deng made what turned out to be, in retrospect, an error from which Hu Yaobang never recovered.

Deng did not take the post of party chairman or general secretary himself, giving it instead to Hu, his longtime trusted assistant. As a result, officially, Hu outranked Deng within the party, China's supreme political body.

Deng remained chairman of the party's Military Commission, the crucial group that oversees the People's Liberation Army. But generally, Deng shunned titles. He was to become, simply and informally, China's "paramount leader."

To admirers, this was a brilliant way of emphasizing the contrast between Deng and Mao, who had assumed the party leadership and had been known for 27 years as "Chairman Mao."

To critics, Deng's supposed modesty was just a different form of arrogance, conveying the message that he was so politically adept that he could rule the country without the top titles.

From then on, Hu bore the formal responsibilities of the party leader, but he was perceived within the ranks simply as Deng's right-hand man. Initiatives taken by Hu and the younger men that he brought into the party leadership with him were not automatically respected and could be frustrated by older, more conservative party members. And the older party members felt free to launch their own mini-campaigns against him.

Authority Unchallenged

Deng remained above it all, his personal authority unchallenged, always ready to meet with foreign visitors or to intervene with some Delphic utterance when the party infighting became too intense.

Under Deng, the reform and conservative wings of the party sparred most often over questions of culture or, more broadly, the party's policy towards intellectuals. But they also clashed regularly over ideology and economic policies.

In early 1981, just as Hu was taking over as party leader, a prolonged controversy broke out over a screenplay called "Bitter Love" by the writer Bai Hua. The script portrayed a Chinese painter being repeatedly victimized by the party. "You love the motherland, but does the motherland love you?" the protagonist's daughter asks at one point.

"Bitter Love" touched off a storm of high-level criticism. Significantly, the attacks began in a leading army publication, the Liberation Army Daily, which said that the views in the script "have harmed our Chinese people's spirit of patriotism and national self-confidence."

And so the battle lines were drawn.

Limited Criticism

Many of the party leaders, intellectuals and military officers who had supported Deng's return to power wanted to denounce the excesses of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but to avoid any broader questioning of the Communist Party itself or changes in its style of operation.

In effect, they favored a return to the policies of the 1950s, without Mao's excesses. They were sometimes known as the "17-years-before people," because they felt that from the Communist victory in 1949 until the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the general thrust of the party's policies were correct.

On the other side, many intellectuals and some in the leadership felt that after the Cultural Revolution, the party should question more broadly its earlier policies and try to create something new.

This group, the reformers, favored greater intellectual freedom for writers and artists, a relaxation of the party's political and economic controls over Chinese society, and a recognition that the policies of the 1950s were seriously flawed, too.

Linked to Both Camps

While Deng was perceived throughout the world as a great reformer, he had close ties to both these camps. On the other hand, there was never any question about which side Hu was on. All his ties were to the reform wing of the party, and he found himself repeatedly challenged by the party's old guard.

As China proceeded with its policies of opening to the West and of economic reform, each set of changes touched off new skirmishes in which these different factions within the party leadership jockeyed for position.

In reaction to the open-door policy, the conservatives--led by Hu Qiaomu--in 1983 launched a campaign against "spiritual pollution" from the West. The campaign was stopped a few months later after Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang reportedly complained to Deng that it was harming China's relations with the West and its ability to attract investment.

So, too, when the regime launched a series of urban economic reforms, emphasizing profit incentives and a somewhat greater role for private enterprise, conservatives attacked the new mercenary values and the trend toward corruption.

"We should overcome the unhealthy tendency among some people of putting money above all else, or even judging a person's social status by his income," Hu Qiaomu warned.

Early last year, the reform wing of the leadership launched a new initiative. The effort began with a call for artistic freedom and quickly broadened into a campaign for "political reform," including calls for greater tolerance of dissent and checks and balances upon the power of the Communist Party.

The calls for political change were issued mostly by intellectuals. But the intellectuals were openly encouraged by two of Hu Yaobang's closest aides, Politburo member Hu Qili and propaganda chief Zhu Houze.

"Without major ideological and political change, no reform is possible," Hu Qili, Hu Yaobang's protege, told one visitor, former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Deciding on Retirement

Such talk of major ideological change went forward last summer at precisely the time when the Communist Party leadership was beginning to focus on the problem of political succession. Deng told one Japanese visitor in August that he was just then trying to decide whether to retire.

A party congress was scheduled for the fall of 1987. Under the scenario being pushed by the reformers, Deng was to retire, Hu Yaobang would take over leadership of the Military Commission and Hu Qili would assume the job of party general secretary.

Party leaders gathered for high-level meetings in August and September. Precisely what was said is unknown, but it appeared that conservatives complained privately to Deng about the talk of broad political reform and limits on the party's power.

According to reports that have circulated since Hu Yaobang's resignation, at these party gatherings the 71-year-old Hu also pushed for the retirement of older leaders, including Deng, 82. These reports, which have appeared in the Japanese press, have not been independently verified and may have originated with sources anxious to rationalize Hu's subsequent ouster.

Deng Urged to Stay

Early last fall, articles began to appear in the Chinese press calling upon Deng to stay on the job. This press campaign reportedly was sponsored by conservative elements who wanted to prevent Deng's power from passing to Hu.

"If 'Father Deng' could stay a bit longer, it would certainly be a piece of good news for the 1 billion Chinese people," a columnist in Canton wrote.

In October, Deng was suddenly confronted with events that must have reminded him both of his own mortality and of his own military background and connections.

Two of China's best-known military leaders died. Both had at one time been Deng's close comrades-in-arms. One, Marshal Liu Bocheng, commanded one of the Red Army's three divisions during the war with Japan, and Deng served as his top political officer. Liu and Deng together won one of the epic battles of the Chinese civil war.

The other associate, Marshal Ye Jianying, was the military leader directing the series of events after Mao's death in 1976 under which the radical Gang of Four was arrested and the way was opened for Deng's return to power.

Deng personally presided over the funeral services for both men, which gave him the opportunity to see old friends.

Memorial Speeches Key

He left it to Hu, the man he hoped to install as his successor, to deliver the memorial speeches. At one point, Hu urged the mourners to strive to make China a "modern socialist country with . . . a high degree of democracy."

Hu seemed unwilling to trim his sails to satisfy the conservative wing of the party. In early November, at a meeting with 250 writers and artists in the Great Hall of the People, the party leader went out of his way to single out Bai Hua, the same playwright whose work had been attacked in the army newspaper six years before.

"What are you writing?" he asked, according to accounts published in Chinese newspapers the next day.

"I am writing plays and novels," Bai answered.

"Very good," the party leader said.

In China, such seemingly mundane chit-chat gives the author the stamp of official approval.

In late November, according to sources, there was an especially acrimonious meeting of senior party leaders in Shanghai. Conservative leaders are said to have shouted at Hu Qili, the sponsor of the campaign for political reform, that he was too inexperienced to know the consequences of his actions.

Students Demonstrate

In December, Deng presided over the largest meeting of military leaders in China for more than eight years. The session took place over the course of two weeks. While the army leaders met, Chinese students were taking to the streets on behalf of democracy in several cities. In Shanghai alone, tens of thousands of people took part in the demonstrations.

It is not clear whether the military leaders discussed the demonstrations; nor is it known whether they talked with Deng about China's future leadership. Hu took part in the meetings, and so did several leading conservative party leaders, including Peng Zhen and Hu Qiaomu.

Less than a week after the end of the military meeting, Deng reportedly met with top party leaders and ordered a crackdown on those intellectuals accused of encouraging the student protests.

He singled out three intellectuals to be purged from the party. One was Liu Binyan, a leading Chinese writer and chronicler of corruption within the Communist Party who had been closely identified with Hu Yaobang for years.

Hu's last public appearance was on Dec. 29. In the first week of January, he reportedly had a final meeting with Deng, at which the two men had a falling out.

On Jan. 13, at a meeting with Japanese visitors, Deng announced that it would not be possible for him to retire because no one would agree to let him go.

"It seems that I have to continue to work," he said.

Three days later, Hu Yaobang resigned.

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