Born to a poor peasant family in Liuyang, Hunan.
Born to a poor peasant family in Liuyang, Hunan.
Hu was formally un-educated，outside a stint in his twenties at the Anti-Japanese Military and Political Academy, though by one report he had taught himself to read. Small in stature (under five feet), independent minded, and impetuous, Hu left home at age twelve to join the Children’s Corps in the 1927 Autumn Harvest Uprising.
His early career centered on all-important New Democratic (after 1957 Communist) Youth League (YL) work. These youth was more numerous than Party members (which they aspired to become), performed similar functions and significantly strengthened the Party's organizational presence in rural areas. Capable and energetic, Hu was tapped as day-to-day manager of Deng Xiaoping revival of pragmatism and reform after Mao’s passing in 1976. Conservatives pushed him out of the inner circle during the political backswing of 1986-1987.
During the civil war years, Hu caught Deng attention as a talented young organizer. At age nineteen to twenty he completed the whole 6,000-mile Long March crucible (only 10-20% of those who started survived), and later was a political commissar (Party leader in an army unit) in Liu Bocheng Second Field Army where Deng was chief commissar. He became vice-chairman of the Taiyuan Military Control Commission after units of Liu's army under General Xu Xiangqian split off to Shansi and captured its capital. From 1949-1952, in his mid-thirties, he rejoined Deng and Liu to assert control of Sichuan, serving there in several political capacities.
In late 1952 Deng brought Hu to Beijing to head the YL. Hu’s tenure there was unique until he, with Deng, joined the Cultural Revolution. No other leader so totally dominated one organizational sector. In 1956, Hu addressed the Eighth Party Congress on the status of YL work, and at age forty-one he was elected to the Party Central Committee. During the Cultural Revolution, in his fifties, Hu suffered along with Deng and other leaders. Red Guard groups sent him to tend livestock in the countryside, and reportedly made him sleep with horses and sheep. In the 1970s he swiftly rose again as his patron's political fortunes gradually re-vived. One year into the post Mao era, Deng secured his appointment as head of the Party's Organization Department, from where Hu energetically returned to power the Party leaders purged in the Cultural Revolution.
In December 1978 he was named head of the Party’s Propaganda Department as well, and elevated to the Politburo (Hu was 63 then, Deng 74). Deng proceeded to push Hu to the center of his reform coalition, culminating in February 1980 in his appointments as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Standing Committee member and as general secretary, the post that replaced the chairman at the top of the Party hierarchy. Hu eagerly took up the cause of lowering the pedestal under Mao and Mao Zedong thought. In an early speech as Party leader, Hu asserted that Marxism should be not rigid dogma but only a guide. A favorite theme became the need to adapt outdated theories to fit new conditions, which left in doubt whether any Marxist or Maoist ideas had continued meaning in China. These themes were not original with Hu, but he gave them prominence from his platform as Party chief.
Hu was very much the reform coalition's political liberal. He variously favored more freedom of expression for intellectuals and artists, more atitude of economic decision for localities and enterprise managers, and stronger censure of corrupt behavior by Party leaders and their families. But as objections to liberal reform ideas strengthened, and factional lines accordingly hardened, Hu came into the conservatives5 crosshairs. In 1986 when Deng (82) made known his wish to retire as informal top leader and Hu (71) bid to succeed him, conservatives and military leaders rallied to defeat him. He was deposed as general secretary, ostensibly for softness in handling student demonstrators, and in January 1987 he retired into seclusion.
His death in 1989 brought forth an outpouring of commemorative expressions that catalyzed the spring’s democracy movement.
During his time in office, Hu tried to rehabilitate the people who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Many Chinese people think that this was his most important achievement. He was also in favor of a pragmatic policy in Tibet after realising the mistakes of previous policies. He ordered the withdrawal of thousands of Chinese Han cadres from the Tibet Autonomous Region following a May 1980 visit to the region, believing that Tibetans should be empowered to administer their own affairs. Han Chinese who remained were required to learn Tibetan. He set out six requirements to improve 'existing conditions', including the increase of state funds to the Autonomous Region, improvements in education, and "efforts to revive Tibetan culture". At the same time, Hu stated that "anything that is not suited to Tibet's conditions should be rejected or modified". Hu made a point of explicitly apologizing to Tibetans for China's misrule of the region during this trip.
Hu traveled widely throughout his time as general secretary, visiting 1500 individual districts and villages in order to inspect the work of local officials and to keep in touch with the common people. When he was sixty-five, Hu retraced the route of the Long March, and took the opportunity to visit and inspect remote military bases located in Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia.