More than 20 years after his death sparked the unprecedented demonstrations that led to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the liberal and progressive political legacy of former Chinese leader Hu Yaobang is again finding relevance in China.

Until recently, Hu — who died on April 15, 1989, two years after he was purged from the party — was considered a sensitive figure, so much so that he rarely found mention in State media outlets.

On Monday, however, Hu’s legacy of a more liberal and reformist politics is being invoked by Chinese progressives, who are pushing for political and economic reforms. And, in a break from the past, the Communist Party has appeared to increasingly tolerate references to Hu.

On Monday, his 24th death anniversary, Chinese social media websites were flooded with tributes to Hu from journalists, prominent commentators and students.

A Party-run newspaper also published a rare editorial praising his legacy. Hu “accelerated reform and opening up”, the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily said. The newspaper also compared the obstacles Hu faced in pushing reforms in the 1980s to the current resistance to reforms from sections of the party.

Symbol of aspirations

That Hu Yaobang remains a powerful symbol of aspirations for political reforms was evident at a recent event in Beijing, where dozens of Chinese intellectuals and students were present at an emotional tribute to Hu.

At the event, his son Hu Deping, who is a prominent economist, historian and backer of liberal political reforms, delivered a speech, and recalled his father’s experience in pushing reforms as he exhibited rare photographs from the 1980s.

Mr. Hu Deping, who is seen as a powerful voice among liberal elements in the party, was peppered with questions about democracy and reforms. “I think democracy is an issue that everyone cares about,” he said. “We should rule the country by law and the Constitution is sacred”.

Among the photographs that were displayed was one from 1986 showing Hu Yaobang with a young Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Their recently concluded decade-long term has, however, disappointed many progressives who hoped for faster political reforms under the two leaders, who rose through the party early on in their careers under Hu Yaobang’s patronage.

Dozens of comments on the Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo on Monday wondered if the authorities’ tolerance towards Hu Yaobang’s legacy signalled change. “Now that we are allowed to celebrate Hu Yaobang again, are times changing?,” wondered one blogger on Sina Weibo. As comments flooded in, searches for Hu Yaobang on Weibo were, however, blocked by the censors, reflecting that even two decades later, some of the ideas that he championed remain a matter of sensitivity for the Communist Party.

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