Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) wrote a sentimental remembrance of a former leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), which was reported by a leading US newspaper. For those of us who are old enough to remember, Hu was the first heir apparent to Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), but was later dumped by Deng because the conservative wing did not like him. His sudden death in April 1989 continues to be viewed as the chief catalyst to the student movement that eventually ended tragically on June 4 of that year.
Given the connection between Hu’s death and what was arguably the most significant socio-political movement in post-Mao China, it is not at all surprising that China watchers are wondering about the significance of Wen’s remembrance. The fact that it was published in the People’s Daily, the CCP’s mouthpiece, further stirs the imagination of professionals who spend their lifetimes trying to figure out what is happening behind the doors of the leadership compound in Beijing.
Although it is still too early to say it is a mistake to suggest that this remembrance indicates the coming of major political changes in China, ie, democracy, it is best to go beyond Hu and examine the content of the remembrance in light of recent events and in the context of contemporary China.
A quick read of the remembrance will show that the essay has the following themes: (1) Hu loved the people, especially the downtrodden; (2) his visits to southern and southwestern China, including Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, were motivated by compassion and interest in the disadvantaged; and (3) Wen was with him during those visits.
Now let’s put these themes in the context of present-day China. Thirty years of economic modernization have made China a richer country, but have also made the rich richer and the poor poorer. As a result of the efforts of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) predecessor, capitalists are now allowed to be members of the CCP, which historically claims to represent only the workers and the peasants. Although no event like the student movement of 1989 has reoccurred (the public aspect of the Falun Gong movement ended rather swiftly), by the Chinese government’s own admission, protests and “mass incidents” are on the rise. Those mass incidents usually involve the less fortunate members of Chinese society.
Meanwhile, official corruption is on the rise and the top leadership of the CCP is using a combination of exhortation, training and public campaigns to demonstrate that it is doing an effective job of cleaning house, all in an effort to soothe the public. Recently, the top official in charge of anti-corruption matters wrote an essay that repeated calls for CCP members to become exemplars and servants of the people. In the last two years, CCP leaders of the over 2,000 counties in China were mandated to receive “training” at the Central Party School in Beijing to learn how to effectively handle mass incidents. Finally, the highly publicized crackdown on the corrupt police force of Chongqing municipality has captured domestic and international attention.
Furthermore, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces are suffering a historic drought. Wen, charged with direct responsibility for economic and development issues, has visited the areas in question with tears in his eyes and apologies on his lips. Even before the recent crisis in these areas, “Grandpa Wen” had already captivated the hearts and minds of people in China and beyond by issuing live, in-person apologies to the people stranded at a train station during the big snowstorm of 2008 that blanketed all of southern China, and for his seeming omnipresence during the Sichuan earthquake relief effort in 2008.