Hu Yaobang (1915—1989) was a reformist leader of the Chinese Communist Party. A participant in the Long March (during which he was captured by a nationalist warlord), he later became a protégé of Deng Xiaoping.
Deng appointed Hu party chief in 1980. He rehabilitated many victims of the Cultural Revolution, and relaxed Chinese rule in Tibet; however, following student unrest in 1986, Hu was forced by hardline pressure within the CCP leadership to resign in early 1987.
After the mid-1980s the new leader Deng Xiaoping promoted rapid modernization. While Mao's memory was still revered, most of his brutal policies were ended and much economic freedom—and a dash of political liberalization—was allowed. Intellectuals were encouraged to speak out again and to share in a new spirit of "democratization." However Communist party leaders in 1986 warned that modernization must not be used as an excuse to introduce "bourgeois philosophies and social doctrines."
By late 1986 student groups began to demonstrate demanding more student participation in local government, a greater degree of democracy, and better living conditions. As demonstrations escalated Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the party, resigned, confessing that he had made major mistakes and would take responsibility for them. It was a setback to political and economic liberalization, though Hu remained, out of office, a symbol of the potential for democracy.
Hu's death in April 1989, sparked widespread public rallies in favor of broad social changes in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. Tens of thousands of students defied a government clampdown to demonstrate in May in Tiananmen Square central Beijing. The Party moved to kill dissent, sending uneducated rural troops into the Square on June 3–4; hundreds of demonstrators were killed, wounded, or arrested. The world was appalled. Following the savage repression of democrats in all major cities Deng Xiaoping appeared to be even more firmly in control.
Hu died of a heart attack of 15 April 1989; impromptu public meetings to mourn his death were the catalyst for the growth of the Democracy Movement, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre later that year.