Hu Yaobang died 30 years ago, but his impact is still being felt in China, especially as the Chinese approach the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Hu had a fatal heart attack during a Politburo meeting in China, then died a week later, on April 15, 1989. An economic reformer and close ally of Deng Xiaoping, Hu had led the efforts to launch China into capitalism and to recover from the years under Mao Zedong. But hard-liners ousted him as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1987, accusing him of “bourgeois liberalization” that contributed to student protests that year.
When Hu died at the age of 74, more than 100,000 students took to the streets of Beijing to mourn him and called for a more transparent system and an end to corruption: two causes championed by Hu. In Tiananmen Square, the students hung a large black-and-white banner featuring his portrait and calling him “China’s spirit,” Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in an account of those events for Quartz.
Eleven days after his death, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran an editorial accusing the protesters of conspiring to overthrow the government. The students were enraged, saying they were patriots wanting to make China better. Even bigger protests ensued, leading to the hunger strikes and sit-in in Tiananmen, and then the massacre in the square on June 4. On Oct. 1, the country will mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.