Rui Xingwen

Propaganda chief demoted after Tiananmen Square
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rui Xingwen, politician: born Lianshui, China 1 April 1927; died Beijing 5 June 2005.

'Zao fan you li" ("To rebel is justified"), was the slogan once shouted by the revolutionary wrecking crew unleashed by Mao Zedong in the turmoil of late-1960s China; almost three decades since the death of the Great Helmsman, it is still cherished by some who believe authority must always be challenged. But perhaps following the death of Rui Xingwen, a reformist whose career was destroyed when he went against his party in 1989, the slogan should be changed better to reflect the vicious twists and turns of modern Chinese history: "To rebel can be costly".

Like his political mentor Zhao Ziyang, the purged Communist Party leader once tipped as Deng Xiaoping's successor and who died earlier this year, Rui earned the wrath of the party when he publicly sympathised with the student demonstrators of Tiananmen Square. On 18 May 1989, as Deng huddled with his political and military advisers for crisis talks on how to deal with the escalating protests, millions across the country watched open-mouthed as Zhao, Rui and the Prime Minister Li Peng appeared on state television, visiting students on hunger strike in Beijing Hospital.

Rui, then the Party's propaganda chief, was seen bending over an emaciated student who said: "We must re-establish the Party's prestige among the people. If the Communist Party has hope, China will have hope . . . Like the US, we should restore the people's confidence that the state can do a good job. Do you agree?" Rui and Zhao's answer, "We fully agree with you", energised the flagging student movement and enraged party conservatives: after forcibly clearing the square on 4 June and killing many of the protesters, they placed Zhao under house arrest and sacked Rui from the Secretariat of the Central Committee, effectively ending his political career.

Born in 1927 in Jiangsu Province, Rui became a revolutionary in his teens. A consensus builder before emerging as an unlikely liberal in the late 1980s, he rose through the party ranks and in 1984 became deputy director of the State Planning Commission. The following year he was appointed Shanghai party secretary, where his subordinates included the current National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and several other men who have since risen to the pinnacle of political power.

In 1987, he was elevated to the secretariat of the Communist Party's Central Committee and began flirting with glasnost-style media reforms while working with Zhao and co-ordinating party propaganda. When the student movement exploded two years later, he was one of a number of party elders blamed for encouraging the movement by relaxing the state's iron grip. Politically humiliated, the former propaganda boss disappeared for two years before re-emerging in his previous incarnation as State Planning Commissioner, a post that was later abolished.

Rui had been ailing for years before dying on 5 June, 16 years almost to the day after the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square; an anniversary few in the Central Committee were keen to mark with an official obituary for an old turncoat. A terse statement, released 12 days after he died, mentioned his pre-1989 "ideological work" for the Central Committee and the post he served after demotion, ignoring the event that had caused his political Waterloo.

When Rui's old comrade Zhao died in January, official obituaries acknowledged his economic contributions, but said he made "serious mistakes" in 1989. Rui didn't even warrant that much criticism, but at least it appears a place is reserved for him in Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, final resting place for China's revolutionary heroes.

David McNeill