Every year China’s most powerful leaders were drawn to the family home of a diminutive grandmother.
On the news of this 95-year-old’s death last Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mother was the first to send flowers.
Li Zhao is best known in China as the wife of the 1980s liberal reformer Hu Yaobang, who held the country’s highest office as general secretary of the Communist Party – until being forced out. It was his death in 1989 that famously sparked the Tiananmen Square student protests.
The annual pilgrimages in more recent times of former Chinese leaders Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and before his elevation to the top job, Xi, to her door, were read like tea leaves as a barometer of Hu’s legacy of liberal ideas. They also spoke of personal loyalty.
One of the female pioneers of communist China, Li Zhao joined the revolution as a 16-year-old in 1937. After her father was killed at an anti-Japanese occupation rally, she took inspiration from the classical Chinese legend Mulan and disguised herself as a man – even shaving her head – to travel alone the long and dangerous road to Yanan.
Arriving at Mao’s communist stronghold, she gave herself a new name to protect her family. Her mother was a devout Christian. She met Hu after studying at Yanan’s university for women and married when she was 21.
In a commitment to gender equality that feminists today would envy, the couple named their first child, a girl, with her mother’s surname. It was agreed boys would be named after their father’s family.
Li Zhao is little known outside China. She refused to travel abroad as First Lady, and seldom accompanied Hu to diplomatic events. She had her own career, as director of Beijing’s No. 1 Cotton and Textile Factory and later as party secretary of Beijing Textile Mill. She had four children.
She walked to work and ate in the canteen as her husband strode the world stage. Tributes from family and friends this week have revealed personal details of the hardships endured in family life that are perhaps typical of her generation in China. When Li arrived at the Beijing textile factory, she cut her pigtails off because women were banned from having long hair.
Facing a three-hour commute to her home with Hu when she began factory work in Beijing, she only returned to her family on Saturday afternoons. Her single living quarters were a 14-square- metre room with no water. Daughter Li Heng recalled during the Cultural Revolution she only saw her mother at home once, when rebels from the factory pushed and dragged Li Zhao, her face swollen, body shrunken and hair roughly chopped, with a sign around her neck, to the family’s courtyard home.
It was also recalled that Li Zhao refused to denounce her husband in this time. After the Cultural Revolution, Hu was pivotal in rehabilitating the reputations of many, including Xi Jinping’s father.
In the 1980s, as China liberalised, Li’s office became a magnet for citizens wanting to air grievances through a “petition”. Her son, Hu Deping, recalled this week that people would press letters into his mother’s hand as she walked to work. She passed important cases on to her husband, and diligently directed others to government departments for resolution.
She was laid to rest at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery on Friday, in an ancient hall reserved for Communism’s heroes with unblemished careers. Hu hadn’t been buried here. But on Friday the white floral wreaths included those from Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.
Young and old queued for hours to pay their respects, amid tight police security. One woman, no relation to the family, had travelled from Guangdong with a four-month-old baby strapped to her chest to pay tribute to the “motherly model of the nation”.
“I admire her” said a teenage girl.
“She was very brave. She travelled to Yanan herself,” said a friend of 30 years.
Another hinted at what was unsaid. “It’s complicated. I came because I respect her, but it is also political.”
News of Li Zhao’s death had earlier been blocked on social media, as it spurred discussion of 1980s liberal ideas and her husband.
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald