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Hu Yaobang and Tiananmen Square

Getty Images / AFP / Pascal George

Meet the man whose 1989 death inspired 100,000 students to protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Twenty-five years ago, Hu Yaobang, a former high-ranking official in China's communist government, died of a sudden heart attack. On the eve of the man's funeral less than a week later, 100,000 students protested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The April 15, 1989, death of Hu, a pro-reform leader who once seemed destined to run the country, "fell like a spark into the highly flammable atmosphere of elite division and popular disaffection," according to the editors of "The Tiananmen Papers," a collection of government and party documents smuggled out of China. Students "launched spontaneous mourning activities, using Hu's death as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the pace of political change."

The protesters filled the square for weeks, seeking government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers' control over industry.

On June 4, the Chinese government sent troops and tanks into the square to break up the protests. As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof described in a front-page story the next day, tanks and troops moved in large convoys and "fired indiscriminately at crowds as outraged citizens continued to attack and burn army vehicles." An exact death toll has never been determined, but estimates range from several hundred to thousands.

Hu, who was 73 when he died, may seem an unlikely icon for democratic change. He left his home in rural China at age 14 to join Communist rebels fighting in the country's civil war. He was still a teenager when he became a full party member in 1933.

Hu was "purged, recalled and purged again" as he rose and fell in the party ranks, according to Time magazine. He became a close adviser to party leader Deng Xiaoping and in the 1980s was appointed general secretary of China’s Communist Party, a post he held until 1987.

But Hu, who once seemed destined to run the country, didn't always follow the party line. During a visit to Tibet in 1980 he admitted that the Chinese government needed to do more to improve the lives of Tibetans. He once said that the Marxist-Leninist theories held by Chairman Mao Zedong did not apply to modern China. He pushed for market reform and more transparent government.

While other leaders donned the tunic favored by Mao, Hu preferred a suit and tie. He thought chopsticks and shared bowls might spread disease. As Kristof wrote in Hu's obituary, "On a trip to Inner Mongolia in 1984, he suggested that the Chinese might start using Western utensils. … Mr. Hu dropped the idea after his startled colleagues reproached him for criticizing a Chinese way of life."

In the wake of student protests across the country in 1986, Hu was criticized for being lax on the protesters, and he was forced to resign as head of the party. A short time later, according to Kristof, "a somber television announcer read a statement that Mr. Hu had resigned after making 'a self-criticism of his mistakes on major issues of political principles in violation of the party's principle of collective leadership.' ''

For many years, both Hu and the Tiananmen protests themselves were “missing from China's official political lexicon," the Times noted in 2010. That changed in 2005, when – in a move surprising to many – Chinese leaders approved a series of events to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Hu's birth.

"Sources said there were no plans to change the party's position that the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were subversive, or to admit it was wrong to use troops to crush them," The Washington Post noted. "But the decision to rehabilitate Hu Yaobang, whom the party condemned for being too tolerant of ‘bourgeois’ political views when it removed him from power, suggested such reversals might be possible in the future."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."