2008:Hu Yaobang: Bringing China Back to “Common Sense”

If this article were published today (it is still online in China) it might unleash a storm. It was written in 2008, several years before Xi Jinping became Party leader.

Bear in mind that Party General Secretary Xi Jinping wants to break the recent custom of Communist Party top leaders only serving two terms, is developing a ‘cult of personality’ and is cracking down hard, even compared with Party practice of the past few decades, on people who think differently. This celebration of onetime Party leader Hu Yaobang (consigned, like another 1980s Party leader Zhao Ziyang, to near unpersonhood in China) reads like a harsh critism of Xi Jinping and an implicit call to bring China back to common sense.

Yet it was written in 2008.

This year, 2022, expected to be the year of Xi Jinping’s coronation for a post-Mao unprecedented third term as Party leader is turning into a very difficult one for him.

Hu Yaobang: Bringing China Back to “Common Sense”


Author:Ma Changbo Wu Yao 

Source:Southern Weekend 

“Hu Yaobang visited more than 1600 Chinese counties.  Hu was always unhappy if the local people were very poor. When he saw that the local farmers were living well, Hu would happily pick up the children around him and call out to  his secretary, “If there is something to eat, let’s give it to the children!”

-In his daughter Manmei’s memoir, Hu once intended to “be the first one Party leader to voluntarily retire.”

-Someone brought word to Hu that “ideological issues should be handled with caution,” to which Hu retorted immediately, “we should be brave on ideological issues.”

At the Sixth Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee in June 1981, Hu Yaobang was elected Chairman of the Central Committee, with Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun as Vice-Chairmen. Talking to the members of the Central Committee after the meeting, he said, “It is my duty to explain to the plenary session that two things have not changed: first, the role of the old revolutionaries has not changed; second, my own qualities have not changed either. The Hu Yaobang of today is still the same Hu Yaobang as he was yesterday.”

In 1980, Hu Yaobang, who was first appointed General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee, faced the impending pinnacle of power when he was proposed by Deng Xiaoping and Ye Jianying to serve as Chairman of the Chinese Communits Party Central Committee, replacing then Party Chairman Hua Guofeng.

After turning down the post over a dozen times, Hu finally accepted the post on one condition: “I can accept the post of chairman, as a kind of transition, only be until the 12th Party Congress is held. If you want me to continue then, you have to change the position from a chairman to a general secretary system in order to protect the collective leadership  system and unity of the party.”

Hu Yaobang, who personally experienced the Cultural Revolution, hoped that China would avoid similar disasters in the future. “Collective leadership” was something he supported, along with “abolishing the system of leadership for life. In his daughter Manmei’s memoir, Hu once intended to be the “first Communist Party [leader] to voluntarily step down from office”.

Looking back at Hu’s actions before and after the reform and opening up, more often than not, it was to make the Party and the country “normal”. He presided over the “vindication of unjust and false cases” and the “Great Discussion on Practice is the Sole Criterion of Truth”, [Note: See article translation at 1978: Hu Fuming’s “Practice is the Sole Criterion of Truth” and his Retrospective ] hoping to extirpate China’s abnormal political logic of “purging people through ideological  rectification campaigns” and to eliminate “ideological superstitions” and “personality cults”. “This cleared the way for Chinese policy reform and opening. Hu;s views on reform since then have been more about respecting common sense, setting out from what is good for people as individuals, and returning to normalcy.

Emancipating the mind and liberating people: When he took office in the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s  Organization Department, someone set off a firecracker

In March 1977, Hu Yaobang became executive vice president of the Central Party School, then not a particularly noteworthy position, though Ye Jianying, who wanted Hu back, said, “You could make a name for yourself there.”

At this time, China was in a state of chaos, the “Gang of Four” had been defeated, but policy had not changed. Hua Guofeng put forward the Two Whatevers “Whatever decision Chairman Mao made, we uphold; whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave, we always follow” to maintain Mao’s authority. In the early summer of that year, Hu told a friend that slogans such as “One sentence from Chairman Mao is worth ten thousands sentences from anybody else” have locked up the creativity of the Chinese nation in chains..

Only amidst chaos does there arise an opening that makes change possible and Hu Yaobang seized it. 

What happened next has been well-remembered : on May 10, 1978, the article “Practice is the only criterion for testing the truth of a proposition” was first published in “Ideological Situation” publication of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The next day, Guangming Daily published this article.

The editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily was Yang Xiguang, who had been reassigned by Hu Yaobang as Minister of the Party Organization Department at this time.  In order to avoid obstacles in the review process, Hu also permitted the Guangming Daily to publish the article in the [Note: high profile status] status of “special commentator” article.

The reaction was even more intense than Hu had expected, with some saying that it was a blatant advocacy of doubting Mao’s instructions and “cutting down the flag”. Someone gave Hu the message that “theoretical issues should be handled with caution,” to which Hu retorted on the spot, “theoretical issues should be addressed bravely.”

Some who have freed their thinking had long awaited this debate, while some others got very angry about it. The controversy eventually turned into the “Great Discussion on the Criterion of Truth. There were discussions in localities across China, however in the end they stood with Hu Yaobang. 

Ye Jianying and Deng Xiaoping also expressed their support, the spiritual “shackles” were removed, and most importantly, it broke the “bonds of superstition in ideology”: if the Cultural Revolution had been wrong, then changing the course was inevitable.

Hu Yaobang didn’t stop there, he was busy cutting open other “shackles” andand righting past wrongs.

When Hu Yaobang arrived at the Party Organization Department, some people set off firecrackers, which is naturally a kind of “audible” encouragement because Hu faced a terribly difficult task.  At that time, the statistics of the Organization Department said that there were 17 million cadres in China who had been dismissed from their posts because of the “merciless blow” of the political campaign.  About 17% of the cases were under review.

Hu Yaobang said that all incorrect verdicts and dispositions of cases must be corrected,  no matter who set or approved them. Someone said, “What about cases approved by Chairman Mao?” Hu replied that as long as they were proven wrong, they should be corrected.

By the end of 1984, China had finally vindicated and corrected the wrongful cases of 3 million cadres.

At the same time, Hu had “corrected” the cases of 550,000 “rightists” who had been sentenced in the  “anti-rightist” campaign. Some people said that I was making too many corrections.  Hu replied, “When they were first arrested, why did not people say that there were too many of these cases?”

People later evaluated Hu’s two moves: his first step was to free people’s minds and the second was to free imprisoned people.  What Hu did was to allow the people of China to think normally and to free them from the consequences of unjust verdicts. These people whose minds and bodies were liberated eventually joined the torrent of reform.

Normalization of political life: “No more brutal struggles within the Communist Party”

Like Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang was also a master bridge player.  Hu was bold and never hesitated.  His working style was to be quick and clear.

Before that, in 1980, just elected General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, Hu was thinking about how to avoid the repetition of disasters like the “Cultural Revolution”, “We must think of ways from our Party and State system …… we should plug the loopholes as much as possible. “

He was determined to establish a complete system of internal party life to prevent normal differences of opinion within the party from turning into abnormal internal political struggles. In November of that year, he gave a report on “Being a Thorough Materialist” which was a stern critique of personality cults. He said at the propaganda work conference that year that Mao’s merits should be told thoroughly, and so should his mistakes.

In the spring of 1981, at Hu’s urging, the “Several Guidelines on Party Life” were officially published, focusing on “adherence to collective leadership and opposition to individual dictatorship.

Some of the provisions of the Guidelines that address the shortcomings of the Cultural Revolution still seem “shocking” today: “Intra-Party struggles must not be brutal or ruthless”; “Opposing a comrade’s opinion is not the same as opposing the comrade …… and is not the same as opposing the Party”.

However, this is not enough, another urgent issue is how to achieve a normal “handover” of power. Hu’s eyes were set on abolishing the “lifetime system of leading cadres” and stepping up the selection of young cadres – something Deng Xiaoping had advocated, saying in 1979 that “old comrades should be let go and their successors should be carefully chosen. “. Hu firmly supported him.

Hu Yaobang said that the 11 secretaries of the Central Secretariat combined were 718 years old, too old. He also said, “If someone is State Council chairman for life, they do their job until their dying day, to their last breath, how could that not produce a cult of personality. ……”

In that year’s 12th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the abolition of the “lifelong system of leading cadres” was clearly written into the party constitution. Excited, Hu Yaobang was ready to do this himself.  “Once the [Note: five year term]  12th Congress adjourned, he told me, after the 13th Congress has convened, he would retire.” Li Hanping, Hu’s former secretary, told the Southern Weekend reporter.

It was also at this party congress that the Communist Party of China (CPC) systematically achieved a change of senior cadres from the old to the new. Among the 348 members and alternate members of the Central Committee elected at the time, 112 were under the age of 55, including Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Li Ruihuan, Yu Jianxing, Luo Gan and others. And the youngest, Hu Jintao, was only 39 years old.

Hu wanted to reassure the old people that on the day the 12th National Congress ended, the 39 young newly elected Central Committee members and alternates were specially arranged to meet with Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and other patriarchs. Hu was beside himself with encouragement, saying, “Be bold and come to the front.”

“Left and right” maneuvering: pushing Deng Xiaoping to Inspect the Special Economic Zone

In 1979, Anhui was engaged in the production responsibility system of “production to the household”, and Wan Li, who was in charge of Anhui at that time, was under great pressure, so Hu Yaobang repeated in a meeting the popular saying, “If you want to eat rice, look for Wan Li” [ yào chī mǐ, zhǎo wànlǐ] as a support.In February 1980, when the Central Party Secretariat was re-established, Hu recommended a candidate for the post. When looking for candidates, Hu recommended Wanli, saying, “Let him take charge of agriculture, as the peasants suggest.”

Looking back on the early years of reform and opening up, Hu, in his capacity as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, turned the will for reform inside and outside the Party into action and continued to promote it, and he also gave central support to local reformers. He also gave support to the local reformists. This is a rare feat of support from above and from below, and of maneuvering between the left and the right.

In November 1978, the central government issued the “Decision on Several Issues of Accelerating Agricultural Development (Draft),” a document for “discussion and trial implementation,” which said that the responsibility system of “contracting work to groups and joint production with pay” should be implemented.

“A few months later, in 1979, Hu said that since the document was a just ‘draft’ and  ‘experimental’, it was possible to ‘allow a breakthrough’  which respected the autonomy of the local production brigades. ‘, which in effect was encouraging the ‘household contract responsibility system’.” Gao Yong, Hu’s former secretary, told the Southern Weekend reporter.

At that time Hu visited Jiangxi and met with a local secretary of the local party committee who was criticized for engaging in the “household contract responsibility system” and had been reported to for allowing 20% of the land to be contracted out to individual peasants, Hu said with a smile: “That’s not much.” Three words, a clear attitude.

Before 1984, there was a lot of criticism about the Special Administrative Region (SAR), and some people said that the SAR were “international concessions’ ‘ [Note: zujie, same term used for the foreign concessions such as those in Shanghai which were returned to the Republic of China circa 1945. End note], to which Hu responded, “These remain regions under PRC sovereignty, how can it be an international concession? “.

Later, Yaobang said to Wang Zhen, “Shouldn’t you accompany Xiaoping to Shenzhen?” In early 1984, Xiaoping inspected several special economic zones during his “southern tour”, and upon his return to Beijing, Deng commented that “special zones are windows”.

In January 1983, Hu Yaobang said that all units had the task of reform. Hu’s speech actually contained the ideas of Deng Xiaoping’s previous talks with Hu, who wanted to bring reform from the countryside to the cities. However, some people said that this was inconsistent with the policy of “adjustment, reform, rectification and improvement” proposed by the 12th National Congress, and the “comprehensive reform” was thus put on hold.

It was not until more than a year later that Hu presided over the formulation of the “Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Economic Reform” that the “comprehensive reform” began again. The biggest progress of the above Decision was that it recognized the development of commodity economy as an insurmountable stage of socialist economic development, breaking through the previous view that “planned economy is the mainstay and market economy is the supplement”.

Deng Xiaping spoke highly of this decision at the Central Advisory Commission meeting, saying that the current central government was “a mature central government that has handled various issues more properly”, which was undoubtedly an affirmation of Hu.

“Deng Xiaoping said to Hu Yaobang at the time, ‘Some people are not working well with you now. In addition, Hu often spoke without a script, so some people criticized him behind his back, and Deng Xiaoping also told him, ‘You are the Party General Secretary, so you will lose prestige if you make too many statements. You have to speak less.'” Li Hanping told the Southern Weekend reporter, ” Deng Xiaoping was helping him to establish prestige.”

During those years, Hu as Party General Secretary, began a nationwide tour that took him to more than 1,600 counties. To those around him, Hu’s joy and anger were on his face, and if local life was backward, Hu was always unhappy. And in Diqing, Hu Yaobang saw that the local farmers were living well and happily picked up the child beside him and called out to his secretary, “Let’s find something to eat and give it to the children!”

Respecting people’s needs: taking the lead in wearing suits and singing popular songs

“Before the Cultural Revolution, then secretary of the Shaanxi Provincial Communist Party Committee, he said in a speech at the university, “How can the issue of relations between men and women be a matter of class struggle? What we are against is the corruption and degradation of life.”

Throughout his life, Hu tried to make himself respect common sense and the laws underneath it, and indeed, this was part of China’s reform.

At the beginning of the reform and opening up, many places were still “grain-oriented”.  The Gannan region of Jiangxi Province was hilly, and so the grain harvest yielded even less than the seeds used to grow it.  Therefore Hu Yaobang said, “Plant citrus, and return the fields to forest. He visited Xilinguole League in Inner Mongolia, where there is a large inflow of people from other areas, known as “blind inflows”, some people advocate “clearing them away”, Hu responded that population flows are normal and can not be blocked.

In Hu’s view, a society should allow normal human yearnings,  such as for a richer and more diverse life including the pursuit of beauty and happiness.

In December 1978, Hu became secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and head of its Propaganda Department. He said that literature and art are spiritual creations and demands for ideological conformity should not be applied too rigidly to them, “Our lives and life paths are incomparably rich and colorful, so why should we restrict ourselves to writing only this and not that?”

At the 1980 playwriting conference, Hu even stood up excitedly  saying in his speech, “Resolutely oppose the imposition of presumptuous charges on literary and artistic works, making extreme criticisms of them, and thereby branding writers as counterrevolutionaries.”

After becoming Party General Secretary, Hu had specifically stated that “we must adapt to the development of modern production” and, he said, “do not be afraid of reform in the way of life.”

At that time, people were still sensitive about dress and hair style, and there was a time when inspection teams were going around cutting up the clothing of people who wore bell-bottoms on the street. Hu’s daughter Manmei in her memoir recalls that her second sister-in-law had her hair permed and came home for dinner asking, “Did you get a good haircut?” The whole family was stunned but Hu Yaobang said, “It’s fine.”

“He advocated that girls wear makeup and skirts.” Li Hanping, Hu’s secretary, told a Southern Weekend reporter. To set an example, Hu took the lead in wearing suits.

When pop songs first circulated in the mainland, some people were quite vocal, just like taking the lead in wearing suits, Hu again took the lead in the central government, “What do you mean by ‘pop songs’? I see a problem with the concept …… is that the song should be popular, in the masses it can be popular that the masses like.” He copied down the lyrics of the then-popular song “My Chinese Heart” on the train and went home to teach his grandchildren to sing it.

“My Chinese Heart”

In 1983, China had a short-lived campaign to “remove spiritual pollution,” “when girls wearing high heels were also ‘spiritual pollution,’ .  Someone discovered a photo of a bare-breasted woman, which later turned out to be  Karl Marx’s wife Yanni.” Hu’s former secretary, Gao Yong, told Southern Weekend that after hearing this, Hu said that “cleaning up spiritual pollution” should not take away from the glorification of human life.

Hu summoned people from the People’s Daily and the Xinhua News Agency to talk to him, asking “not to interfere with people’s dressing”, “young people should be allowed to dance in groups on holidays”, and “paintings and sculptures should not be banned from expressing the beauty of the human body. “…… Today these have become normal views in China.

Hu also had a heartfelt respect for intellectuals. In 1981, he wrote back to a poet, saying that the slogan of “ideological reform” would no longer be mentioned in the policy for intellectuals. A few years later, Hu visited the Yuelu Academy in Changsha, and when he wrote an inscription, someone proposed to write that he write “An Academy For the Ages”, but Hu said after a moment’s deliberation that it would be better to write “Respect for Knowledge”.

People still remember that in that first warm year of 1975, at the conference of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Long March, Hu Yaobang, who was presiding over the Chinese Academy of Sciences at that time, said, “Let’s do one more big thing, carry out a new Long March, and build China into a strong country with Four Modernizations.”

Hu Yaobang made an appointment to see everyone again after 25 years will have passed., “If I manage to live to see that day, I will have only one request, that  I sit in a corner, as long as I am given one or two cigarettes.  I think at that time, I will congratulate the people sitting on the stage for their contributions to the Four Modernizations of this great land bequeathed to us by our ancestors. “

(This reporter interviewed Gao Yong, Hu Yaobang’s secretary, Li Hanping, Hu Yaobang’s security secretary, Zhu Liang, former minister of the Central Federation of China, Huang Tianxiang and Li Rong, Hu Yaobang’s former subordinates and friends, and Lin Jingyao, a researcher in the Research Office of the United Front Work Department, for which we would like to express our gratitude. This article refers to “In Memory Still Green – Memories of My Father Hu Yaobang”, “The Chronology of Deng Xiaoping”, “The Great Turning Point – Before and After the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee”, etc.)


http://www.sina.com.cn2008年12月18日09:46 南方新闻网



  作者: 记者 马昌博 实习生 吴 瑶 发自北京

  -他跑了 1600多个县,如果当地生活落后,胡总是不开心。而看到当地农民生活不错,胡高兴地抱起身边的孩子,喊秘书说,“有什么吃的,给孩子拿点来!”







  回顾胡耀邦在改革开放前后的作为,更多的时候,是使这个党以及这个国家能够“正常”起来。他主持“平反冤假错案”和“真理标准问题大讨论”,希望能 改变中国不正常的“运动整人”的政治逻辑并破除“思想迷信”和“个人崇拜”,这为改革开放扫清了道路。而他此后对改革的种种观点,更多的是尊重常识,从人 出发,回归正常。



























About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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