In 1948 at the age of 19, Hu joined the Communist Party of China (CPC). He studied at Peking University from 1946-1951. While enrolled, Hu served as president of All-China Students' Federation, and graduated as a Minister of Electronics Industry.
After the death of former general secretary Hu Yaobang, he opposed the "4-26 Editorial" and refused to vote in favour of the martial law (at least he didn't vote). However, Hu was much less fortunate than Qiao Shi, the other member of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee who opposed the use of force by not voting: unlike Qiao Shi who retained his post, Hu was then kicked out from the Politburo Standing Committee after the fall of general secretary Zhao Ziyang. After he "changed his opinion", he was appointed vice-minister of Machine-Building and Electronics Industry with the help of Wan Li.
Hu Qili was known as a reformer during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. As Jonathan Mirsky writes in the New York Review of Books, "The other member was Hu Qili, who had been sympathetic to Zhao's views on reform.".