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.

He proved his loyalty to Mao by praising the Great Leap Forward, an economic policy of radical collectivization in the late 1950s that led to widespread famine.

He was Hunan's vice governor from 1958 to 1967 and then ascended to first secretary, the top provincial rank, during the Cultural Revolution. Mao launched the revolution to reassert his waning authority and purged his political rivals. Thousands of professionals and intellectuals were attacked and killed during the next decade.

Mr. Hua was called to Beijing in 1971 at the height of the Cultural Revolution and participated in the investigation of former defense minister Lin Biao's alleged coup attempt. Lin, once seen as Mao's likely successor, had been killed that year in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia.

From there, Mr. Hua's portfolio continued to expand. He oversaw state security and became acting prime minister after Chou died in January 1976. His succession of Chou was considered a compromise between Deng and more-radical players in the Communist Party. Mr. Hua's blandness was seen as a virtue.

The next few months offered pivotal tests of his mettle. A series of earthquakes claimed more than 700,000 lives. Violent strikes and equally violent responses from the military sprouted up in the provinces.

The Gang of Four viewed with particular distrust a gathering of 10,000 people in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to honor Chou. In Mao's paranoid tradition, they saw such an outpouring as an attack on them and pressed on Mr. Hua to punish their potential rival, Deng.

During this turmoil, Mao died in September 1976 and Mr. Hua took charge. Outside of the surprise arrests of the Gang of Four on Oct. 6, he was seen as ineffectual at best, and Deng soon returned to seize greater authority.

Unable to carry out the economic policies necessary to stabilize China, Mr. Hua became a figurehead, then a footnote.

Drew reported from Beijing and Bernstein from Washington. Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company