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New Evidence on Hu Yaobang’s Fall and Japan-China Relations in the 1980s: Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s Visit to China, 1986

Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited China in November 1986, a time of change and turmoil for both China's elite politics and Sino-Japanese relations.

The materials translated into English here are transcripts of Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s visit to China in November 1986, released by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017.[1] The timing of the visit is fascinating because it took place at a turning point in Chinese politics and amid changes in Japan-China relations. The materials add some new evidence and knowledge on China’s domestic and foreign policy dynamics in the 1980s.

Prime Minister Nakasone and General Secretary Hu Yaobang had established a person-to-person trust relationship. Nakasone had an affinity for Hu, who was frank and outspoken for a Chinese politician and sometimes talked beyond official political line.[2] Hu Yaobang also paid particular attention to Japan: during a visit to China by Nakasone in 1984, Hu invited Nakasone to a banquet at his home in Zhongnanhai, in return for the invitation to Nakasone’s home during Hu’s visit to Japan in 1983. It is unusual for a Chinese leader to entertain a foreign leader at home. On his own initiative, Hu decided to invite 3,000 young people from Japan to China in the fall of that year. Such a level of trust between the two leaders contributed to the stability of Sino-Japanese relations and helped resolve problems between the two countries.

However, during his visit to China in 1986, many problems emerged in China’s internal politics and Sino-Japanese relations. In Chinese politics, in January 1987, just two months after Nakasone’s visit to China, General Secretary Hu Yaobang resigned as General Secretary and was forced out of power. In Sino-Japanese relations, Japan’s growing trade surplus and Prime Minister Nakasone’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine emerged as thorny issues.

The Fall of Hu Yaobang

The first interesting aspect of the documents is that they reveal the inner workings of China’s domestic politics. The Japanese records contain utterances suggesting differences and conflicts between Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang’s positions. While Hu emphasized the generational change in leadership and de-emphasized his opposition to “Bourgeois Liberalization,” Deng Xiaoping showed a cautious attitude toward the generational shift and opposed the democratization movement.

These points provide new evidence on Chinese politics in the 1980s and Hu Yaobang’s downfall in 1987.[3] Previous studies and recollections of those involved have identified two factors regarding Hu’s fall: the issue of "Bourgeois Liberalization" and the issue of generational change.

Both Zhao Ziyang, the Prime Minister, and Deng Liqun, a conservative theorist and a member of the Party Secretariat, observed that the difference between Deng’s and Hu’s perspectives on democracy and freedom was the most significant factor that led Deng to oust Hu.[4] Hu’s attitude towards liberalization and the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign was indeed moderate, and it displeased Deng Xiaoping and the Party elders.

Although Zhao recalled that Deng Xiaoping was not a man who cared about such small things as generational change, the Japanese new evidence highlights the importance and, indeed, graveness of generational change. This does not mean that the political differences between Deng and Hu over liberalization did not exist, or that they were  not an important issue, only that political differences were not the single or most crucial factor for Hu’s Fall.

Generational Change and Power Struggle

The meetings between Nakasone and Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang vividly illustrate the differences between the two on the speed of generational change in China’s leadership. Hu Yaobang expressed his willingness and determination to promote generational change, stressed that the current leadership lacks vitality, and pushed to speed up the tempo of generational change. Hu said that what needs to be resolved is a change of old and new, and that “the extent of that [change] will be significant, although the PM may not be able to imagine it.” He stressed that “we will promote middle-aged cadres and retire old ones." Hu also mentioned, “[at the 13th Party Congress] we would like to appoint at least four young cadres for the Party’s central leadership.” Pointing to Hu Qili and Wang Zhaoguo, Hu said “those two are among the at least 7 or 8 young cadres. Of course, it goes without saying, in regard to this personnel issue, that a process of discussion and the agreement of everyone will be necessary.”

It was – and remains – highly unusual for a Chinese leader to address foreign leaders by naming specific people at the highest level on a personnel issue.

In contrast, Deng Xiaoping admitted to Nakasone the need for generational change, while at the same time showing a cautious approach to proceeding with it. He said, “This isn’t something that can be done in three or five years; it takes about 15 years. Next year’s 13th Party Congress will take a step forward, but it’s very much not a done deal. I would like to go one step further at the 14th Party Congress and complete it at the 15th Party Congress, but by then I would be 93 years old, because I am now 82 years old. It is not something that I can achieve, nor is it something that Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang can achieve.” Deng also touched on his retirement, saying he was thinking about retirement but that he faced much opposition.

The generational change was not taboo, as Deng Xiaoping saw a need for it and sought to establish a retirement system for leading cadres. However, Hu’s willingness to actively push for his elders’ retirement would have had different implications. This issue’s importance is evident in the transcript of his meeting with Prime Minister Nakasone.

There was a consensus among the leadership, including Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, that the leadership needed to be rejuvenated. The provincial cadres’ average age in 1982 was 66 years old. For the 11th Central Committee members, 15.8% were university graduates and 18% were provincial cadres. With economic construction deemed a central task for the Party, it was vital to improve the number of educated Central Committee members. A retirement system for old cadres was introduced in 1982. As a transitional measure, the Party established a Central Advisory Commission for semi-retired cadres. A new generation of cadres emerged with the retirement of 64 Central Committee members and candidates at the Fourth Plenum in September 1985.[5]

However, when it came to the specifics of how and at what pace this should be done, it was difficult to reach a consensus because generational change inevitably involved a power struggle. Hu Yaobang was particularly active in promoting generational change, abolishing the life-term leadership system, and establishing a retirement system for central leadership officials.[6]

The issue of generational change can be divided into three points: first, the top leaders’ retirement; second, the selection of new leadership; and third, selecting younger candidates for future leaders.

First, the issue of generational change was directly linked to the issue of the retirement of the supreme leadership, led by Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping had also begun to talk about his retirement in some interviews with foreign media.[7]

According to Li Rui, in May 1986, Deng spoke with Hu about his retirement and proposed that at the 13th Party Congress, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Li Xiannian should fully retire, and Hu should retire as party general secretary but remain in the Central Military Commission (semi-retired), to which Hu immediately agreed.[8]

Perhaps in response to this talk with Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang attempted to push for the leadership turnover. On May 22, Hu delivered a speech on institutionalizing cadres’ retirement at the Party-Government-Military cadres’ conference in Sichuan. Hu emphasized that the leadership would be significantly rejuvenated at the 13th Party Congress.[9] One-third of the Party’s Central Committee members and candidate members will be retired, and 110-120 new members will be brought into the Central Committee. Moreover, 80-90% of them will be around 50 years old. “I am almost 70 years old, and I am old enough to retire, and any comrade who is over 80 years old should retire even more so!”[10]

According to Zhao Ziyang, after the Sixth Plenum of the 12th Party Congress in 1986, Deng suggested to Hu his retirement. Zhao recalled that Hu might have taken Deng’s statement as an indication that Deng would support him to let the elders fully retire.[11] According to Liu Chongwen, a secretary to Hu in the 1950s and from 1987-1989, Hu expressed an optimistic view of the issue during the National Day in October 1986. Hu told Liu: “At the Thirteenth Party Congress, we must make the rules, and we will cease to have a lifetime system. Comrade Xiaoping will be fully retired, and I will be semi-retired. Two-thirds of those who have reached the age limit will be fully retired, and one-third will be semi-retired, with posts in the Central Advisory Committee, the People’s Congress, and the Political Consultative Conference.”[12]

However, the issue was very complicated because, on the one hand, Deng himself recognized that the CCP needed stable generational change. But, on the other hand, he still thought he was irreplaceable in China’s leadership, and those who promoted generational change quickly might be seen as ambitious. Nevertheless, Hu Yaobang did not understand that Deng Xiaoping might have a mixed perception of the issue. Hu’s frank and bold attempts to promote generational change seem to have posed a threat to Deng Xiaoping. To Deng, Hu’s stance might have deepened his suspicions, as it appeared as if Hu was trying to oust them with ambition.

For example, when Hu was interviewed by the journalist Lu Keng, who published the Baixing magazine in Hong Kong, he spoke openly about issues related to the inner workings of Chinese politics in June 1985.[13] Lu praised Hu and asked for Hu’s view on succeeding the post of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission from Deng Xiaoping while he is still healthy to ensure a smooth succession process. Hu said he had never thought about it and said he would leave the military to Deng so that he and Zhao Ziyang could focus on political and economic issues. In 1985, there were reports in the foreign media that Deng Xiaoping was trying to expand Hu Yaobang’s role in the military.[14] However, the military was a power base that Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping would not relinquish until the end. Whether or not to give it up was a very sensitive issue and not one that could be spoken about in the media.

Hu Yaobang continued to try to hasten the generational change, perhaps mistakenly perceiving that he had Deng Xiaoping’s blessing to do so. In fact, Deng Xiaoping was abandoning Hu Yaobang. On October 30, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Li Xiannian held a meeting to discuss their retirement. Although the meeting’s details have not been disclosed, the three elders agreed that the three of them would fully retire at the 13the Party Congress.[15] Perhaps the three elders’ real intention was not to cede power to Hu Yaobang by retiring completely, given the context of their disappointment in Hu.

Second, there is the question of succession. If the Party elders retire, who will replace them in the leadership? In 1985, the next generation of leaders (such as Hu Qili, Li Peng, Qiao Shi, Li Ruihuan, and Jiang Zemin) emerged. Also, an even younger generation, such as Wang Zhaoguo and Hu Jintao, came on the scene. Hu Qili and Wang Zhaoguo came from the Communist Youth League linked to Hu Yaobang and were known as the Tuanpai or Youth League Faction. The rise of the Youth League cadres gave the older conservative leaders the impression that a faction was being formed around Hu Yaobang.

The fact that Hu Yaobang made it clear to Nakasone that he was going to name Hu Qili and Wang Zhaoguo to join the leadership seemed to be a problem. First, Hu called the people he wanted, which would have appeared for conservatives as an attempt to consolidate his faction’s power. Making these appointments known to foreign leaders was even more problematic. Tang Jiaxuan, who was present at the banquet, reminded the Japanese not to make this public after the banquet. This episode speaks to Hu’s indiscretion and excessive eloquence. In his memoir, Nakae Yosuke, then the Ambassador to China, who was present at the meeting, referred to this episode, saying that Hu’s careless remarks would provide the opposition camp with an opportunity to make a case.[16]

Third, the selection of a younger generation of cadres. They tried to select future leadership candidates from among the fledgling cadres at the local level. This selection was necessary because the leaders who held power at the center were distrustful of the cadres’ political credibility and ability who had risen through the struggle for power during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. There was a consensus in the central leadership about promoting the younger cadres; it was especially crucial to Chen Yun and Hu Yaobang. Chen Yun set up the Youth Cadres Bureau within the Central Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party, with Li Rui in charge.[17]

Hu Yaobang led the formation of a reserve army of leaders called The Third Echelon in 1983.[18] In 1984, the Youth Cadres Bureau carried out inspections in various places and made a Third Echelon list at the provincial level. By the end of 1985, 1,009 provincial-level rear guardsmen were selected. Among them, 93% had a college degree. The cadres chosen would become the core of the future leadership. More than half of the Politburo members from the 15th through 18th Party Congresses and all but two of the Politburo Standing Committee members at the 17th and 18th Party Congresses were selected from the Third Echelon. Xi Jinping, then the Secretary of the Party Committee of Zhengding County, Hebei Province, was selected as one of the Third Echelon. He became vice-mayor of Xiamen City, Fujian Province, in 1985, where he began his path to leadership.  

There was consensus on the need to select new generation of cadres, but there was a dispute over what kind of people to promote. In terms of promotion and appointment of cadres at that time, the most important factors were personal relationships, leaders’ blood relatives, and leaders’ secretaries. There was an unspoken rule that important provincial and municipal appointments required the elders’ consent.[19]

Hu Yaobang, however, was focused on educational standards (rather than ideology and connections) and sought to build a fairer selection system.[20] Hu and Li Rui feared that cadres’ children would be privileged and occupy the center of the new generation of cadres, so they tried to strengthen cadres’ management and education.

However, at a roundtable meeting of cadre children held by the Youth Cadres Bureau in March 1984, the cadre children strongly opposed establishing a provision for leaders’ children.[21] Hu and Li could not go further because Chen Yun saw the children of cadres as a reliable and influential pool of talent, and in this respect, he took a different view than Hu and Li. The Youth Cadres Bureau consisted of the children of cadres, secretaries, and Tsinghua University graduates.[22] It was also an organization with close ties to Chen Yun, and it was supposed to report to Chen Yun’s office on its personnel matters.[23] Under these circumstances, it was difficult to impose restrictions on the cadres’ children, and it was not possible to establish such regulations. In September 1984, Li Rui was removed from the third echelon selection.[24]

Still, in 1986, Hu Yaobang tried to push again for further reforms. It was because the problem of the “winds of injustice” had come to the surface. The children of high-ranking officials took advantage of their privileged position to make economic gains and become morally corrupt.[25] In December 1985, the Leading Small Group for the Central Organization Correcting the Party Conduct, led by Qiao Shi, was set up. The group was created to challenge various injustices and privileges in politics and the economy. Particularly criticized was the phenomenon of high-level leaders creating factions by pulling up their relatives and wielding authority in personnel.[26] Hu Yaobang had stressed to the small group that there were severe problems with senior officials in leadership positions, especially nepotism and faction-building in personnel matters.[27] On January 28, 1986, the Party issued a directive that cadres’ selection and appointment should be strictly in line with the Party’s principles. The order criticized the leadership cadres for failing to adhere to Party principles and disturbing personnel discipline. It emphasized that the leadership cadres must adhere to Party principles in their appointments in an exemplary manner.[28]

Hu Yaobang became increasingly more rigid on the privileges allotted to the children of cadres.[29] According to Manmei, Hu’s daughter, Hu ratified the Politburo member’s children’s arrest regarding economic crimes. Because he was the child of a high-ranking official, the public security department was hesitant to arrest him. Hu authorized a search of the Politburo officials’ homes, resulting in a raid and the officials’ children’s arrest.[30] The person detained at this time was Hu Qiaomu’s son, Hu Shiying. Hu Qiaomu was furious about the arrest of his son.

Perhaps against this argument, Hu Yaobang stressed that the problem of cronyism was more significant than the contradictions over policy lines. Hu noted that the problem with countering cronyism was not overdoing it, but rather a lack of awareness of these contradictions and a lack of courage to tackle them, which has already become “an antagonistic contradiction,” which was a strong word in the CCP lexicon.[31]

Although Hu Yaobang denied the existence of the Tuanpai, conservatives would have seen Hu Yaobang’s actions in the context of a power struggle.[32] Chen Yun’s criticisms of Hu Yaobang were twofold: He did not understand the economy, and his personnel appointments were inappropriate.[33] It seems to have reflected Chen Yun’s dissatisfaction with Hu Yaobang’s personnel selection.

The record of the meetings during Nakasone’s visit to China capture the very contradictions that were becoming more acute. Deng’s statement that others opposed his retirement showed his pride that he was still irreplaceable within the CCP. This expression corresponded with his answer to an interview with Mike Wallace in September 1986.[34] On the other hand, Hu continued to hope that he would promote a significant generational change at the 13th Party Congress. However, it is not clear to what extent Hu was aware of this difference. It was also a dangerous sign for Hu when Deng said that Hu and Zhao would not be able to accomplish a generational change.

This is similar to a pattern of a political struggle that was repeated in Chinese politics during the Mao era: the supreme leader becomes paranoid about the loyalty of his hand-picked number two, and the issue of his retirement escalates into a power struggle. This is not to argue that the liberalization issue was not significant. However, the differences between Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang that appear in the meeting records suggest that the issue of generational change was of greater importance than Zhao Ziyang testified.

Bourgeois Liberalization: Background and Trigger

There is no doubt that Deng Xiaoping was becoming frustrated with Hu Yaobang’s attitude towards liberalization. During the 1980s, how much political liberalization to be allowed was an essential point of political contention in China.

Hu Yaobang took a benign view toward the liberalization movement. On June 28, 1984, Deng Xiaoping called Hu Qili and pointed out Hu Yaobang’s shortcomings, pointing out that his opposition to liberalization was insufficient. Hu Qili transmitted these comments to Hu Yaobang.[35]

Deng also criticized Hu Yaobang’s interview with Lu Keng that was mentioned earlier. Deng Xiaoping said to Hu Qili and Qiao Shi that “Lu’s method is to cajole Hu Yaobang into opposing our domestic and foreign policies. This man is trying to use Hu Yaobang’s banner. So Hu Yaobang had to talk more about his opposition to Bourgeois Liberalization, but he has not spoken clearly. Hu Yaobang’s discourse is at least clumsy, and some of his talks are not solemn, and some of them even pander,” he said with extreme severity.[36] Hu Qili and Qiao Shi conveyed Deng Xiaoping’s message to Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, but Hu Yaobang did not take any action.[37]

Hu Yaobang may have thought that a compromise on this issue was possible. In drafting the "Resolution Concerning Guiding Policies for the Construction of a Socialist Spiritual Civilization," controversy arose over its wording. There were two points of contention. The first was whether to include the phrase “opposing Bourgeois Liberalization.” The second was whether to have the phrase “building a socialist spiritual civilization with communist ideology at its core.” Hu Yaobang’s group, which drafted the resolution, did not include either expression. In contrast, Deng Liqun argued that both phrases should be included. Lu Dingyi, a long-serving Party theorist, strongly opposed the word “opposing Bourgeois Liberalization.”[38] However, Deng Xiaoping strongly advocated that the phrase must be clearly written in the resolution. His support for this expression led to the phrase’s inclusion in the resolution. On the other hand, Deng Xiaoping endorsed Hu’s views on not using the phrase “building a socialist spiritual civilization with communist ideology at its core.”[39] Deng Xiaoping had struck a balance in the left-right conflict. While there were indeed differences of opinion between Hu and Deng on freedom and democracy, they did not appear to be a severe point of contention.

According to Zheng Bijian, who served as a secretary for Hu from 1981-1986, Hu was satisfied with the resolution and mentioned that “there are those who try to make a fuss about democracy in the West, but we must not let them cause a ruckus.”[40] Zheng Bijian, in contrast to other Hu’s secretaries, many were sympathetic to the liberalization movements, remained in the political world after Tiananmen Incident on June 4, 1989. Therefore we cannot take his words at face value. Nevertheless, the compromise over the resolution and these words from Hu Yaobang show that he had an optimistic view of the issue.

It is challenging to identify huge differences or gaps in the liberalization issue between Deng and Hu in the meetings with Nakasone. While Deng Xiaoping took a cautious view of political liberalization, Hu Yaobang did not say much about it.

Deng said, “Young people worship the so-called “freedom” of the West, but they don’t know what freedom is. They have to know discipline,” stressing the importance of discipline as well as the ideal of freedom. Regarding the democratic system, he said, “Some good things in the Western system are not accepted as they are due to the inferior cultural background of China. The conditions for a general election, for example, have not been set up in China, and it may be possible to hold it in 20 or 30 years, and I’m not opposed to the general election itself, but I can’t do it now.” It is interesting to note that Deng has made non-negative comments regarding democratization, but on the other hand, this does not seem to be Deng’s true intentions. Deng Xiaoping often made such remarks to foreign guests, and it was likely just lip service to foreigners.

Hu Yaobang seems to have had a more positive attitude toward liberalization. Still, he did not speak so clearly in the record of his meeting with Nakasone. When he explained the Spiritual Civilization Resolution adopted by the Sixth Plenum of the 12th Party Congress in 1986, he did not address the issue of anti-Bourgeois Liberalization.

In response to the student movement of December 1986, Deng Xiaoping decided to bring Hu Yaobang down earlier than planned. Even though elders had already decided that Hu would be disqualified, the student movement’s upsurge led to fierce criticism against Hu. Hu Yaobang resigned in January 1987 and was heavily criticized at a session organized by one of the elders, Bo Yibo. Deng Liqun was at the forefront of criticism of Hu. In addition, the attacks from Wang Heshou and Yu Qiuli, with whom Hu was close, came as a shock to Hu. Two years later, in April 1989, Hu died. Students began to gather in Tiananmen Square to mourn him, which was the beginning of the events leading to the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Japan-China Relations

The second point worth noting about the documents is that the meeting took place when the golden era of Sino-Japanese relations was slowly beginning to fade away.

In the mid-1980s, Japan-China relations entered into a so-called “golden age,” with bilateral relations so good that they were described as the best they had been in 2,000 years. The foundations of good Sino-Japanese relations were (1) economic cooperation, (2) an agreed upon strategy toward the Soviet Union, and (3) trust between the leaders of the two countries, Prime Minister Nakasone and General Secretary Hu.

First of all, looking at economic cooperation, Japan, which had become an economic powerhouse in the 1980s, was an essential partner for China in advancing its open-door policy. Also, Japan and China shared anti-Soviet views. Although China had adopted a policy of independent diplomacy in 1982 and adjusted its proximity to the United States, it maintained friendly relations with Japan. Moreover, the trust between Nakasone and Hu was a symbol of the cordial relationship between the two countries. Hu took the initiative to invite 3,000 young Japanese men and women to visit China in 1983. Hu Jintao, then a cadre of the Communist Youth League, presided over the invitation. In response, the Japanese accepted 500 young men and women each year.

However, problems between Japan and China were beginning to emerge around 1985. As for the economy, China’s demand for consumer goods expanded along with its economic growth, and imports from Japan increased. The Chinese side was becoming dissatisfied with the growing trade deficit. Meanwhile, technology transfer was not progressing as quickly as the Chinese side had hoped. The Chinese side also demanded that Japan increase its direct investment in China.[41]

Political conflicts arose again. Prime Minister Nakasone made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, on August 15, 1985. The Prime Minister and Cabinet members had visited the Shrine before, but they did not specify whether they had visited as private or public figures. The Yasukuni Shrine had become controversial because Class-A war criminals of World War II were enshrined there in 1978. However, although Prime Ministers Ohira Masayoshi and Suzuki Zenko visited the Shrine in 1979 and 1980, China did not see it as a problem.[42] However, Nakasone’s visit in 1985 met with fierce reaction from the Chinese Government, and student demonstrations that criticized the visit to Yasukuni Shrine spread in China.

Interestingly, the meeting records show that, despite the signals that Japan-China relations had reached their peak, such sensitive issues were rarely discussed. Deng Xiaoping said almost nothing about the problems between the two countries. Hu Yaobang said, “We are satisfied with regard to the state of relations between China and Japan.” He also remarked that, “Prime Minister Nakasone and the Japanese people correctly understand the feelings of the Chinese people and we, too, correctly understand the feelings of the Japanese people. There is no problem between us two leaders. There are a few persons who do not understand the relations between our two countries, but that is no matter. It has no influence on the overall situation.”

Nakasone likewise expressed his confidence in Hu. Only in the meeting between Zhao Ziyang and Nakasone were the two countries’ economic issues (and disputes) discussed.

As the power struggle described above was unfolding, Hu’s pro-Japanese position became a source of criticism. Zhao Ziyang recalled that Deng Xiaoping was dissatisfied with the close Nakasone-Hu relationship. Concerning Hu inviting Nakasone to his home for a banquet, Deng Xiaoping said, “China should not engage in personal diplomacy. It seems that some people are unable to respond properly to Nakasone.”[43] Hu’s relations with Japan also came under scrutiny as the Yasukuni issue emerged. Hu mentioned he was criticized for being pro-Japanese when he met with a novelist Yamazaki Toyoko. He recognized that continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine would make his position as a national leader extremely difficult.[44]

The Japanese Government was aware that the intimacy of Sino-Japanese relations had become a source of attack against Hu. According to Ambassador Nakae, although there was no hard evidence, he had heard rumors that Hu’s position was in jeopardy as he was being criticized for being too close to Japan.[45] However, according to Hasegawa Kazutoshi, a Special Advisor to Prime Minister, although the Japanese Government was aware of the involvement of Sino-Japanese relations in the fierce power struggle in China, it did not expect Hu to be ousted because the Japanese Government analyzed that Hu’s power base was still firm enough.[46]

Japan believed that strengthening Hu Yaobang’s political position was conducive to good Sino-Japanese relations and tried to avoid actions that undermined Hu’s position. Nakasone had intended to continue his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine after his controversial visit in 1985. However, he recalled that he decided against continuing to visit the Shrine in 1986 because of information that his visit to the Shrine had jeopardized Hu’s domestic political position.[47] Nakasone and Hu’s trust served as a buffer between them.

It is true that some of the criticisms of Hu Yaobang included his self-initiated efforts to deepen relations with Japan, but Hu Yaobang was dissatisfied with these criticisms. For example, Hu Yaobang’s invitation of Nakasone to his home was in return for Nakasone’s hospitality at his home during Hu Yaobang’s visit to Japan, and the Central Secretariat ruled that “because of the reciprocity of rituals, the Party leader could entertain guests as a commoner.”[48] Besides, Hu Yaobang claimed that it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who proposed the invitation of Japanese youths. Hu Yaobang ratified it by reducing the original proposal to 3,000 (from 10,000) after the Standing Committee of the Politburo agreed with the plan.[49]

With Hu Yaobang’s downfall, Sino-Japanese relations lost their safety valve and gradually became less stable. According to one study, right after the Nakasone’s visit to China, Deng Xiaoping decided to make adjustments to rebalance relations with Japan; on November 13, 1986, Li Xiannian told Zhao Ziyang that he agreed with Deng Xiaoping’s instructions to adjust relations with Japan.[50] It is not clear when Deng Xiaoping gave the instructions and what exactly he meant by the adjusting relations with Japan. Still, it is clear that relations between Japan and China gradually peaked after this point.


For a long time after Hu Yaobang's downfall, Hu became an untouchable figure. However, in recent years, Hu has been gradually rehabilitated: in 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao published a text on Hu’s 90th birthday; in 2015, a roundtable discussion for commemorating Hu‘s 100the birthday was held, and Xi Jinping gave a speech at the roundtable. Xi praised Hu as an honorable, fair, and clean Communist model.[51] Xi praised Hu Yaobang’s efforts to rejuvenate the cadres and develop leaders, and fight against the winds of injustice and corruption. Of course, this did not include an assessment of political liberalization here. Part of Xi Jinping’s reason for going ahead with the restoration of Hu Yaobang’s honor was probably political, as he wanted to use it to further his anti-corruption struggle.

At the same time, there was also a personal dimension. The ties between Hu Yaobang and Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, could contribute to Hu’s rehabilitation. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was close to Hu. Hu helped Xi Zhongxun to be rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, and the two had close views on political reform. Xi Zhongxun was furious about a “democratic life meeting” held in 1987 to criticize Hu. Allegedly, He said, “This is not normal! The Party’s Democratic Life Meeting is not a forum to discuss the Party’s General Secretary’s problem. This is a violation of the Party’s principles.”[52]

Nakasone’s friendship with Hu continued even after his death. In 2005, on the 90th anniversary of Hu’s birth, Nakasone sent 90 cherry blossoms to Hu’s family and sent a message to the memorial roundtable on November 8, 2005: “friendship and goodwill among nations are, of course, based on the promotion and cooperation of the people, but understanding, friendship, and respect among the leaders of nations, based on human nature, are also important foundations. Mr. Hu Yaobang shares this conviction. I would be grateful if I could be allowed to plant 90 cherry trees around his grave at an appropriate time next year.”[53] During his 2007 visit to China, Nakasone requested to visit Hu’s Grave in Gongqingcheng, Jiangxi Province. Although his request was turned down, he met with Hu’s son, Hu Deping, and Hu’s family in Beijing.[54] (After Hu’s rehabilitation in 2015, Nakasone’s secretary Tanaka Shigeru had a chance to visit Hu’s grave of behalf of Nakasone.[55])

During his 2007 visit, when Nakasone stopped by Shanghai, a banquet, hosted by Xi Jinping, who was then the Secretary of the Shanghai Party Committee, was held. According to Tanaka Shigeru, who accompanied him to China as a member of Parliament, Xi took out a photograph of his wife Peng Liyuan with Nakasone and said, “This is a photograph that my wife has carefully kept under key and lock, but I have borrowed it today. My wife visited Japan as one of the 500 people proposed by Mr. Nakasone for the Japan-China friendship exchange and had our picture taken with him at the Prime Minister’s residence. My wife still reminisces about her visit to Japan from time to time with fond memories.[56]

Hu Yaobang’s fall marked the end of the golden age of Sino-Japanese relations.[57] After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the public view on China in Japan has considerably deteriorated. Since then, the two countries have stabilized their relations, especially in terms of economic interdependence. Later, however, the rise of historical problems caused tensions to deepen, and mutual trust declined. After 2010, security issues have become the focus of the Japan-China rivalry because of China’s expanding maritime activities.

Trust between the leaders of the two countries, as exemplified by the Nakasone-Hu relationship, is but a distant memory.


[1] For the review of the Japan-China relations in the Nakasone Government era, see Kawashima Shin, “The Four Principles that Formed the Basis of Friendly Relations between Japan and China: The China Policy of the Nakasone Yasuhiro Government,” Asia-Pacific Review, Vol.27, No.1, pp.80-101; Hattori Ryuji, “Nakasone-Ko Yoho Kankei to Rekishi Mondai,” [Nakasone-Hu Yaobang Partnership and the History Issue] Takahara Akio and Hattori Ryuji eds., Nicchu Kankei Shi 1972-2012 [History of Japan-China Relations, 1972-2012 Vol.1 Politics] Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 2012; Kawai Reika, “1980 Nendai Nicchu Kankei Saiko,” [Rethinking Japan-China Relations in the 1980s] Kokusai Seiji, No. 197, September 2019, pp.90-105.

[2] Nakasone Yasuhiro, Nakasone Yasuhiro ga Kataru Sengo Nihon Gakoshi [Japanese Foreign Policy Since 1945: Yasuhiro Nakasone Oral History] Tokyo: Sinchosha, 2012.

[3] Yang Jisheng, Zhongguo Gaige Niandai de Zhengzhi Douzheng [The Political Struggle during the China’s Reform Era] Hongkong: New Century Publishers, 2004; Yang Zhongmei, Hu Yaobang: A Chinese Biography, Japanese Edition, translated by Kojima Michiko, Tokyo: Sososha, 1989. Also, the analysis of CIA provided a similar conclusion. See “Key Questions in the Fall of Hu Yaobang: An Intelligence Assessment,” Central Intelligence Agency, May 1987. < >

[4] Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, Japanese edition, Tranlsated by Junji Kawano, Tokyo: Kobunsha, 2010; Deng Liqun, Deng Liqun Zishu: Shierge Chunqiu [Deng Liqun Speaking for Himself: Twelve Seasons] Hongkong: Dafeng Chubanshe, 2006.

[5] Richard Baum, “The Road to Tiananmen: Chinese Politics in the 1980s” Roderick Mac Farquhar ed. The Politics of China, Third Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 2011, pp.376-378.

[6] Hu Yaobang, Hu Yaobang Wenxuan [The Selected Works of Hu Yaobang] Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2015, pp.622-626.

[7] Oriana Fallaci, “Deng: Cleaning Up Mao's Mistakes,” Washington Post, August 30, 1980. This part was not included in the Second volume of the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping.

[8] Li Rui, “Yaobang Qushi qian de Tanhua” [Dialogue with Yaobang before He Passed Away] Dangdai Zhongguo Yanjiu, 2001 Issue 4, <>

[9] Sheng Ping ed. Hu Yaobang Sixiang Nianpu [The Chronology of the Thoughts of Hu Yaobang] Vol.2, Hong Kong: Taidetime Publishing, 2007, pp.665-666.

[10] Lin Mu, “Xi Zhongxun zai Hu Yaobang Xiatai Qianhou,” Hu Yaobang Sixiang Shiliao Wang, <>

[11] Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State, pp.273-274.

[12] Liu Chongwen, “Yaobang he Wo Tan Xiatai Qianhou” [Yaobang and I Talked before and after his resignation] Yanhuan Chunqiu, Vol.3, 2010. <>

[13] Lu Keng, “Hu Yaobang Fangwen Ji,” [Record of Visit to Hu Yaobang] originally published in Baixing, June 1, 1985. <>

[14] Daniel Southerl, “Deng Seen Bolstering Hu's Defense Role,” Washington Post, Sept. 28, 1985.

[15] Zhonggong Zhongyang Wenxian Yanjiushi ed. Chenyun Nianpu, Xiudingben [Chronology of Chen Yun, Revised Edition] Vol.3 Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 2015, p.451.

[16] Nakae Yosuke, Ajia Gaiko-Dou to Sei [Asia Diplomacy: Stillness and Motion] Tokyo: Sotensha, 2010, pp.258-259.

[17] Li Rui, “Xuanba Disantidui de Youguan Huiyi,” [Memories of the Selection of the Third Echelon] Yanhuang Chunqiu, No.1, 2016, pp.51-53, <>

[18] Manmei, Sinian Yiran Wujin-Huiyi Fuqin Hu Yaobang, [Still Missing: Remembering My Father Hu Yaobang] Beijing: Beijing Publishing, 2005, pp.458-459.

[19] Yang Jisheng, “Qianyan,” [Introduction,] Yan Hui, Jinchu Zhongzubu: Yidai Hongerdai Lixiang Zhuyizhe de Linglei Rensheng, [In and Out of the Organization Department: the Alternate Life of a Second-generation Red Idealist] Hongkong: Mingjing Publishing, 2017.

[20] Hu Yaobang, Hu Yaobang Wenxuan, p.480.

[21] Li Rui, “Xuanba Disantidui de Youguan Huiyi.”; Yan Hui, Jinchu Zhongzubu, pp.110-111.

[22]Yan Hui, Jinchu Zhongzubu, p.112.

[23] Yan Hui, Jinchu Zhongzubu, p.113.

[24] Li Rui, “Xuanba Disantidui de Youguan Huiyi.”

[25] Hu Yaobang, Hu Yaobang Wenxuan, p.638-639.

[26]People’s Daily, April 18 and October 29, 1986.

[27] Hu Yaobang, Hu Yaobang Wenxuan, p.638.

[28] Zhonggong Zhongyang “Guanyu Yange Anzhao Dangde Yuanze Xuanba Renyong Guanbu de Tongzhi” [Notice of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Selection and Appointment of Cadres Strictly in Accordance with Party Principles] January 28, 1986, <>

[29] Harry Harding, China’s Second Revolution: Reform after Mao, Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987, p.233; John Garnaut, “Princelings and Paupers,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2012, <>

[30] Manmei, Sinian Yiran Wujin, p. 458.

[31] Hu Yaobang, Hu Yaobang Wenxuan, p.644.

[32] Manmei, Sinian Yiran Wujin, p.464.

[33] Li Rui, “Yaobang Qushi Qian de Tanhua.”

[34] Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping Wenxuan,[The Selected Works of Deng Xiapping]Vol.3, Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1993, pp.174-175.

[35]Sheng Ping, Hu Yaobang Sixiang Nianpu, p.530.

[36] Sheng Ping, Hu Yaobang Sixiang Nianpu, p.619; Deng Liqun, Deng Liqun Zishu, p.443.

[37] Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State, p.271.

[38] Gong Yuzhi “Lu Dingyi yu Shier Jie Liuzhong Quanhui Jingsheng Wenming Jueyi” [Lu Dingyi and Spiritual Civilization Resolution at 6th Plenum of 12th Party Congress] Dangshi Wenyan: Jishiban, 2008 Vol 12 <>; Zheng Bijian, a secretary of Hu from 1981-1986, indicated Hu supported the inclusion of “Bourgeois Liberalization,” Xuexi Ribao, Jan.15, 2011. <>

[39] Zhonggong Zhongyang Wenxian Yanjiushi ed. Deng Xiaoping Nianpu 1975-1997, Vol.2,[The Chronology of Deng Xiaoping] Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 2004, pp.1138-1139.

[40]Xuexi Ribao, Jan.15, 2011.

[41] Yu Minhao, Kokusai Shakai ni okeru Nicchu Kankei-1978-2001nen no Chugoku Gaiko to Nihon, [Japan-China Relations in the International Society: China’s Diplomacy and Japan, 1978-2001] Tokyo: Keiso Shobo, 2015; Li Yanming, Nicchu Kankei to Nihon Keizai Kai- Kokko Seijoka kara ‘Seirei Keinetsu’ Made, [Japan-China Relations and the Japan’s Business Community: from Normalization to “Seireikeinetsu”] Tokyo: Keiso Shobo, 2016.

[42] Hattori Ryuji, “Nakasone-Ko Yoho Kankei to Rekishi Mondai,” pp.174-175.

[43] Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State, pp.268-269.

[44] Hattori Ryuji “Nakasone-Ko Yoho Kankei to Rekishi Mondai,” pp.178-179.

[45] Nakae Yosuke, Ajia Gaiko, pp.263-264.

[46] Hasegawa Kazutoshi, Shusho Hishokan ga Kataru Nakasone Gaiko no Butaiura[Behind the Scene of Nakasone Diplomacy Told by A Special Advisor to the Prime Minister: How Mutual Trust with the United States, China, and South Korea were Built] Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2014, pp.262-265, 310-312.

[47] Nakasone Yasuhiro, Nakasone Yasuhiro ga Kataru Sengo Nihon Gakoshi, pp.442-443.

[48] Manmei, Sinian Yiran Wujing, p.438

[49] Li Rui, “Yaobang Qushi Qian de Tanhua.”

[50] Eto Naoko, Chugoku Nashonarizumu no naka no Nihon [Japan in the Chinese Nationalism] Tokyo: Keiso Shobo, 2014, pp.98-108.

[51] Xi Jinping “Zai Jinian Hu Yaobang Tongzhi Danchen Yibai Zhounian Zuotanhui shang de Jianghua” [A speech at the Roundtable Discussion of the Centenary of Comrade Hu Yaobang] Xinhua, Nov. 20, 2015, <>

[52] Lin Mu, “Xi Zhongxun Zhangyi Liting Hu Yaobang” [Xi Zhongxun Upheld Justice and Supported Hu Yaobang,] Hu Yaobang Shiliaoxinxi Wang <>

[53] Zhang Shi “Zhongzenggen Kanghong yu Hu Yaobang de Youqing ji Xiaqi” [Friendship and Chivalry between Nakasone Yasuhiro and Hu Yaobang] Nikkei Chinese version, January 8, 2020 <>

[54] Nakasone Yasuhiro, Nakasone Yasuhiro ga Kataru Sengo Nihon Gakoshi, pp.551-552.

[55] Tanaka Shigeru, “Ko Yoho Moto Soshoki no Ohakamairi” [Visit of the Former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang’s Grave] Webpage of Tanaka Shigeru , Sept. 16, 2016, <>

[56]Tanaka Shigeru, “Ko Yoho Moto Soshoki no Ohakamairi.”

[57] Kokubun Ryosei, Chugoku Seiji Kara Mita Nicchu Kankei[Japan-China Relations as seen from Chinese Politics] Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2017.

About the Author

Yamaguchi Shinji

YAMAGUCHI Shinji is a Senior Research Fellow of the Regional Studies Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Ministry of Defense, Japan, and a specialist in Chinese politics, China’s security policy, and contemporary Chinese history.

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