So, was it just a bit of personal nostalgia for an old comrade, or a more pointed political message in support of reform? This is the question being asked about a piece penned by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao that appeared in the People’s Daily earlier this week, in which he reminisces about a trip he took 24 years ago to Guizhou Province. He was there with then Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was travelling with a group of about 30 central government officials in an effort to set an example to encourage better understanding of local circumstances and connect with the public.
Hu Yaobang is a fascinating figure. Seen as a political reformer, it was popular unrest over the Communist Party’s (lacklustre) response to his death that prompted the public mourning that ultimately ended up being channelled into widespread public dissatisfaction and the Tiananmen demonstrations.
He had been forced to resign by Deng Xiaoping in 1987 after being accused of being too sympathetic to student demonstrations the previous year calling for greater freedom of speech. Coverage of him in official media in the years following his death was virtually non-existent (although in November 2005, the 90th anniversary of his birth, low-scale events were organised as part of an effort to rehabilitate him image).
In the piece, which has proved something of a hit in cyberspace (the original is here, I haven’t seen an English translation of it online yet), Wen recalls:
‘After I started with work in the central government in October 1985, I had the chance to work closely with Hu for almost two years. I personally experienced and observed how he connects with the public and listen to their complaints.
‘His leadership has deeply influenced me at work, at study and in life. After he left the central government in January 1987, I still visited him quite often. I stayed beside him in April 1989 when he was seriously sick. I rushed to the hospital as soon as I heard his death on April 15. I visit his family every year during Lunar New Year. His portrait hanging on the wall of his home always inspires me to work harder for the public.’
It’s hardly surprising that passages like this are being pored over by China watchers to see if there’s some message here. Is Wen making a point on how the central government should pay closer attention to public opinion? Is he making a direct appeal over the heads of others for political reform? Or is it just musings over an old, departed friend?