Chinese President Hu Jintao has agreed to restore the standing of the reform-minded Communist leader whose death triggered the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, a surprising reversal of party dogma that could prompt new calls for democratic change in China, according to people informed of the decision.
Hu Jintao has approved plans for a series of events honoring the late party chief Hu Yaobang on the 90th anniversary of his birth on Nov. 20, the sources said. The activities would end more than a decade of official silence about a party leader who was sacked by hard-liners in 1987 but remained a hero to the party's reformist wing.
The government has not publicly recognized Hu Yaobang since students mourning his death on April 15, 1989, occupied Tiananmen Square and staged weeks of demonstrations for democratic reforms.
Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the military to use force to clear the square, and hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed. Any tribute to Hu Yaobang was considered taboo because it could stir memories of the June 4 massacre and renew debate about the political reforms he supported.
But last month, the General Office of the party's Central Committee issued a document outlining plans to mark the anniversary of Hu Yaobang's birth with ceremonies in Beijing as well as in Hunan province, where he was born, and Jiangxi province, where he is buried, according to two sources who have seen the document. The party will also hold a symposium to discuss his legacy, and publish an official biography as well as a collection of his writings, they said.
The sources said there were no plans to change the party's position that the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were subversive, or to admit it was wrong to use troops to crush them. But the decision to rehabilitate Hu Yaobang, whom the party condemned for being too tolerant of "bourgeois" political views when it removed him from power, suggested such reversals might be possible in the future.
"This might be a first step, a small but important one," said one informed party member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If the party can change its position on Hu Yaobang, it can change its position on June 4 and on political reform."
It was unclear why the Chinese president, who on Thursday was visiting Canada, decided to rehabilitate Hu Yaobang, but a key party leadership meeting is scheduled for October and he might have been trying to expand his political base by reaching out to reformers in the party. Hu Jintao took over as the party's top leader in 2002 and as president in 2003, but many allies of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, remain in power.
The decision to rehabilitate Hu Yaobang -- no relation to Hu Jintao -- surprised many party officials because it was out of character for the president, who has developed a reputation over a long career in the party as an extremely cautious bureaucrat unwilling to take risks. "The safe thing to do would have been to continue to do nothing," said a senior editor of a party newspaper who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Over the past three years, the president has consistently rejected fundamental political reform while leading a sustained crackdown on religion, media freedom and other civil liberties. He has also been quoted telling propaganda officials that while the economic policies of Cuba and North Korea were flawed, their political policies were correct.
But some party officials continue to hold out hope that Hu was acting as a hard-liner to consolidate his position after taking over from Jiang. They noted that he modified another major party doctrine during a speech Saturday marking the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. In the past, the party took credit for defeating the Japanese and ignored the contributions of the ruling Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. But in his address, Hu acknowledged the role of the Nationalists, mentioning several military leaders and battles by name.
In another slight departure, Premier Wen Jiabao said during a news conference Monday that China would eventually allow elections, now limited to rural villages, to expand to larger townships. "If the Chinese people can manage a village, I believe in several years they can manage a township," he said.
Hu Dezi, one of Hu Yaobang's nephews in Hunan province, said local authorities received permission recently to build a memorial park that would include a statue, a spacious public square and an exhibition hall.
People close to Hu Yaobang's family said one important, unresolved issue was the fate of a three-volume biography produced independently by a group of former aides to the late party leader over the past 15 years. Party authorities learned of the project, led by Zhang Liqun, a former newspaper editor and party official who died two years ago, and insisted on taking control of it, the sources said.
But it was unclear what deletions and changes would be made before its publication in November. Hu Yaobang served as party chief from 1981 to 1987, and is remembered by many Chinese for overturning cases against millions persecuted during Mao Zedong's political movements and launching the economic and political reforms that ended the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
One of the most sensitive issues may be how to explain Hu Yaobang's fall from power amid a wave of student protests demanding democratic reform. The authors have written that Deng Xiaoping forced Hu to resign because he favored reform and resisted instructions to crack down on what the party called "bourgeois liberalization." But influential party members have objected to any account that reflects badly on Deng.
Sources familiar with the discussions said the party had not provided the authors with an edited version of the biography, despite repeated requests, and the authors vowed not to let the party publish the work if it tried to rewrite history.