Childhood & Early Life
Yaobang was born into a peasant family of Hakka lineage.
He never received any formal education.
At the tender age of 12, he participated in his first rebellion, and at 14, he joined the ‘CCP.’ He became its full-time member at 18.
He was the youngest participant of the ‘Long March.’
As a supporter of Mao Zedong, he was sentenced to death when Mao’s government was replaced. He survived because he was rescued in the nick of time.
He was taken a prisoner of war by Ma Bufang while fighting alongside Zhang Guotao, leader of a communist expeditionary force. However, he managed to escape to Yan’an.
He attended the ‘Anti-Japanese Military School,’ where he met Li Zhao, his future wife.
After his military training, he worked with Peng Dehuai’s ‘Third Front Army.’
In the 1930s, he met Deng Xiaoping and worked with him as a political commissar in the ‘Second Field Army.’
In 1949, under the leadership of Xiaoping, he beat the ‘Nationalist’ militia and took control of the Sichuan province.
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The ‘CCP’ won the civil war against the ‘Nationalist’ forces in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China.
From 1952 to 1966, he served as a leader of the ‘Communist Youth League’ in Beijing.
In 1964, Yaobang was appointed the first party secretary of Shaanxi.
His party membership was withdrawn for the first time in 1969, mirroring the career of Deng Xiaoping, his mentor.
The same year, he was made to wear heavy wooden collars around his neck and paraded on the streets of Beijing. Later, he was sent to a high-security work camp to be part of “reformation through labor.”
Both he and Xiaoping were reinstated as members of the ‘CCP’ in 1973 but were purged again in 1976.
During his second stint of exile from the ‘CCP,’ he was made to herd cattle. In 1977, he was recalled and rehabilitated for the second time. He was immediately assigned to lead the ‘CCP’s organizational department. He later helmed the party propaganda through the department of the ‘Politburo.’
In 1978, he implicitly supported ‘Democracy Wall’ protestors and hosted two activists at his Beijing home.
He did not favor Hua Guofeng’s ‘Two Whatevers’ policy.
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He and Xiaoping played vital roles in each other’s rise to power.
In 1980, he was appointed as the ‘CCP’s secretary general and was elected to the influential ‘Politburo Standing Committee.’
He was made the ‘CCP’ chairman in 1981. Ironically, he assisted in abolishing the post in 1982.
During his tenure, he and Zhao Ziyang reformed the economic and political scenario of the country. They distanced themselves from the economic policies followed by Mao Zedong and implemented more pragmatic solutions to support Xiaoping’s program, ‘Four Modernization.’ He encouraged intellectuals to be part of this reform.
On the political front, he introduced democratic methods to choose members for the ‘Politburo,’ brought in more transparency in the functioning of the government, collected popular opinion before framing any policy, and made the government officials accountable for their actions.
He played a crucial role in absolving around three million people who were convicted during the ‘Cultural Revolution.’ It earned him great respect in the eyes of the people.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region received more support and autonomy. They attempted the revival of the Tibetan and Uyghur cultures and the education of the people of the two regions.
His relatively liberal policies and growing popularity rubbed many senior leaders of the ‘CCP’ the wrong way.
His friendly gesture to Japan and his invitation of 3,000 Japanese youth were not appreciated by the party veterans.
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His campaign against corruption and nepotism within the party irked the highly influential leaders. He even fell out of favor with Xiaoping.
Due to his handling of the students’ demonstration in the late 1986 and the early 1987, the party members compelled him to resign and tender a humiliating apology.
This incident dampened the image of the party but earned respect for him.
Following his resignation, he stayed away from politics.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Li Zhao in 1941. They had three sons, Hu Deping, Hu Liu, and Hu Dehua, and a daughter, Li Heng.
He suffered a heart attack on April 8, 1989, and passed away a week later, on April 15.
His wife held the party and Xiaoping responsible for his death.
His official obituary read “a long-tested and staunch communist warrior, a great proletarian revolutionist and statesman, an outstanding political leader for the Chinese army.”
Students marched to the ‘Tiananmen Square’ as a mark of respect to Yaobang on April 22, 1989. They attended Yaobang’s memorial service and handed over a letter of petition to Premier Li Peng.
The students, inspired by Yaobang’s support for freedom of speech and freedom of the press continued to protest, as they were dissatisfied with the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions of the country. These protests eventually led to the ‘Tiananmen Square’ protests, also known as the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ of June 4, 1989.
After his cremation, the final resting place of his remains was moved from the ‘Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetry’ to a large mausoleum, a pyramid-shaped tomb, atop a hill in Gongqing, Jiangxi, upon his wife’s insistence.
On December 5, 1990, his ashes were flown to Gongqing by his son, Hu Deping.
His 100th birth anniversary was celebrated with great pomp and show.
As a consequence of the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre,’ the government went out of its way to prevent Yaobang’s ideas and information from being spread by the press, banning all articles related to him in China. In August 2005, however, it officially rehabilitated his image and lifted its censorship restrictions on the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Of the three volumes of his biography, the government permitted the release of only one.