Hua Guofeng; Succeeded Mao as Chinese Leader

By Jill Drew and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post staff writers
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hua Guofeng, an obscure functionary who briefly served as the handpicked successor to Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, died Aug. 20 in the Chinese capital. He was reportedly 87, and no cause of death was released.

Mr. Hua, a peasant's son, was a top administrator in Mao's home province of Hunan for two decades. Generally regarded as an undistinguished leader, Mr. Hua managed to win the chairman's confidence by ardently supporting his most disastrous policies, under which millions of Chinese perished by gun and famine.

Mao orchestrated his protege's sudden advance to the elite Politburo in 1973, and Mr. Hua became Mao's choice to succeed him in 1976, when Mao's health was failing and rivals vied for power. "With you in charge, my heart is at ease," the founder of communist China is said to have told Mr. Hua.

After the deaths that year of Mao and Prime Minister Chou En-lai, Mr. Hua became the only Chinese leader to hold simultaneously the titles of Communist Party chairman, prime minister and head of the military commission.

Under his watch, although his precise role is unclear, state officials made dramatic arrests of Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and three others conspiring to assume power over more-moderate forces.

Officials charged the Gang of Four with instigating the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long political campaign in which millions of Chinese were persecuted and the country's economy and social fabric were left in tatters.

Despite that early show of force, Mr. Hua's control did not hold. Although he had won Mao's favor, he lacked a broad base of support as well as experience needed to face a deepening economic crisis. His advocacy of continuing rigid, state-directed economic plans for the nation proved an enormous strategic error.

He was easily outmaneuvered within the party by Deng Xiaoping, a brash economic reformer who had effectively taken charge of the party by 1978 after having earlier been purged.

The party rejected Mr. Hua's economic plan and embraced what became known as Deng's "reform and opening" policies, which laid the groundwork for the next three decades of China's explosive growth.

Although Mr. Hua was never exiled from the party or banished to a remote province, fates that had been common in the earlier days of the party, he never regained a prominent role after formally relinquishing the title of Communist Party chairman in 1981. He remained a member of the party's central committee until 2002.

Mr. Hua was born in northeastern Shanxi province Feb. 16, 1921, although 1920 is sometimes given as a date.

His early life was spent in the Red Army during the Chinese civil war and fighting the Japanese during World War II. After the Communist takeover in 1949, he helped organize control over Hunan.

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