The ominous rumors of a political shakeup swept through the Chinese capital of Peking last week. But the only sign of government activity was the presence of a fleet of buses in front of the imposing Great Hall of the People—an indication that China’s nominal legislature was in session. Then, late in the week China’s official news agency announced the stunning result of that meeting of the National People’s Congress: Hu Yaobang, 71, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, had resigned. The departure of China’s second-most powerful leader was the climax of a concentrated party drive to stifle student dissent. After a tumultuous fourmonth experiment, China had clearly ended its flirtation with Western-style political freedom.
Last month, in a heady burst of freedom, students in at least 15 cities took to the streets to call for Western-style democracy. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had initially encouraged a move toward political freedom as part of his drive to Westernize China’s economy. But as the demonstrations spread and the party was openly vilified, Deng went on the attack.
For the past two weeks governmentcontrolled publications have denounced the students as class enemies. Early last week the former president and vice-president of the Science and Technology University in Hefei were fired after charges that they wanted to Westernize China. Then, Deng, 82, singled out his longtime associate and
heir apparent, Hu, for his lax treatment of the protesters and Westernstyle intellectuals. Three weeks ago Hu disappeared from public sight amid official reports of fatigue.
Last week the Central Committee appointed another Deng protégé, Premier Zhao Ziyang, 67, as Hu’s replacement. Still, Hu’s departure appeared to undermine all of Deng’s reform efforts since 1979. Hard-line conservatives within the party had resisted Deng’s openness to the West. But the government acted quickly to demonstrate its strength—and its commitment to economic reform. The official communiqué stated that Deng’s economic reforms would continue. Then, minutes after the resignation announcement, an official in charge of commodity prices appeared on China’s state television to promise that retail prices would be kept stable throughout the year. Rising prices had been the most unpopular aspect of Deng’s economic reforms. But Western diplomats predict that it will be difficult for Deng to curtail the damage. Said one: “Deng is weakened, and the reformers are weakened.”
Because Hu was reportedly Deng’s handpicked successor, the crisis may delay the Chinese leader’s retirement. Western diplomats say that Deng will hold on to power until he is sure that his reforms to change the face of China survive him. As one warned: “If anyone thought of Deng retiring, forget it. He is clearly calling the shots.”
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