China honors leader linked to Tiananmen Square riots

BEIJING – 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, killing hundreds, 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.”

President Hu’s absence from the event 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 President 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.

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