China's senior leadership on Friday honored the reformist Communist Party chief whose death sparked the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, breaking more than a decade of official silence on his legacy. But notably absent from the politically sensitive ceremony was the man who approved it, President Hu Jintao.

The memorial for the late Communist leader Hu Yaobang, whom hard-liners ousted in 1987 because he had tolerated a wave of student protests in support of democratic reform, took place behind closed doors and amid heightened security in Beijing. State television reported the event Friday night, and within hours thousands flooded the country's most popular Web sites with notes of remembrance and support.

The ceremony in the Great Hall of the People was a rare political rehabilitation of a deposed leader in China. The Communist Party almost never admits errors and usually tries to avoid reminding the public of the democracy demonstrations that swept China in the spring of 1989. Those protests ended on June 4 of that year when troops opened fire on crowds near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands.

President Hu Jintao's decision to restore Hu Yaobang's reputation raised hopes that the party was taking a step, however tentative, toward changing its position that the student-led demonstrations were subversive or admitting it was wrong to use military force to crush them. Such a reversal would be necessary before any attempt by the party to adopt substantial political reforms, party officials and analysts said.

"It's already been 16 years," said one retired official who attended the ceremony and spoke on condition of anonymity. "The fact that they can take a small step forward isn't bad. We can't expect them to take a big step."

Hu's absence from the event, along with a series of other moves by his government to limit its impact, suggested that he has no plans for immediate change. Hu, who took office two years ago, has pursued a repressive crackdown on journalists, religious groups and other elements of civil society.

Officials portrayed the commemoration as an attempt by Hu to improve his image and repair relations with the party's reformist wing, which regards Hu Yaobang as a hero. In a similar gesture, party leaders allowed Bao Tong, the most senior official jailed after the Tiananmen crackdown, to visit his hometown last month, people familiar with the move said.

In a written statement, Bao applauded the party's decision to rehabilitate his former colleague. "The Communist Party once learned a deeply painful lesson because of its treatment of Yaobang," he said, referring to the students who occupied Tiananmen after Hu's death demanding that the party revise its official view of him and triggering weeks of mass demonstrations. "The party should not equivocate again and continue covering up its errors."

Hu Jintao originally approved a series of events to honor Hu Yaobang on the 90th anniversary of his birth on Sunday, including a ceremony with 2,000 guests, a symposium to discuss his legacy and the publication of a biography and a collection of his writings, party officials and other sources said.

He later scaled back the activities to Friday's ceremony, which state media described as a seminar with 350 participants. In addition, by moving the commemoration forward two days, Hu provided himself with an excuse not to attend, the sources said. He was in South Korea for a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders Friday and expected to return to Beijing Saturday for a meeting with President Bush.

The sources said Hu scrapped the earlier plans because of concerns that a high-profile commemoration might encourage new calls for democratic reform and threaten social stability. Some factions of the party also expressed doubts because a decision to restore Hu Yaobang's reputation would imply criticism of those who ousted him, including China's paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping.

A party official familiar with the decision making process dismissed reports in Hong Kong that four of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body, opposed the commemoration. He said none of the senior leaders would dare go on record opposing a move to rehabilitate a popular figure such as Hu Yaobang, but acknowledged that many expressed reservations.

Wu Guanzheng, a Standing Committee member who serves as the party's top disciplinary official, presided over the ceremony, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong, considered a potential rival to President Hu, delivered the keynote address. Premier Wen Jiabao sat between them at the front of the room, but did not speak, participants said.

Hu's widow and his children, including a son who serves in a senior party post, also attended the ceremony, along with a host of other party officials, past and present.

"Comrade Hu Yaobang was a long-tested and staunch communist warrior, a great proletarian revolutionist and statesman," Zeng said, according to a text of his speech released by the official New China News Agency.

People who attended the event said none of the speakers mentioned the circumstances of Hu Yaobang's fall from power or the demonstrations that followed his death. In another sign of caution by President Hu, the speakers did not read a message from him, as would be customary at such an event, participants said.

Party authorities instructed state media outlets to use only official reports on the ceremony. The authorities have ordered at least two journals with essays devoted to the late party leader recalled from libraries and newsstands, officials said.

Many Chinese remember Hu fondly for clearing the records of the millions persecuted during Mao Zedong's political movements and launching the economic and political reforms that ended the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Deng forced him to resign after hard-liners accused him of refusing to crack down on what they called "bourgeois liberalization," referring to a wave of student protests demanding democratic reform.

A member of Hu Yaobang's family who attended Friday's ceremony expressed satisfaction with his rehabilitation. "No matter how you look at it, this was still a breakthrough from nothing after so many years," he said. "It makes it possible to hold deeper discussions in the future."

After silence about Communist leader Hu Yaobang's legacy since his death sparked deadly demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, China commemorates the 90th anniversary of the reformer's birth.