Puzzling noises from China are beginning to raise new questions about the post-Mao leadership. Some of the most puzzling noises are those that do not reach us - such as, for instance, the extravagant praise of Chairman Hua. The volume of praise bestowed on him has decreased markedly, and he is no longer made to appear as much of a superman as Mao was. Mao's successor seems to be in some kind of trouble.
Of course, it is conceivable that Hua's innate modesty - for which he has also been praised to the skies - has caused him to order the Chinese press to go easy on the Hua cult. Or that, having established himself as a superhuman figure in the eyes of the nation, he feels no further need for the continuation of the buildup. It is conceivable but, for a number of reason, unlikely.
For one thing, the object of the buildup, which was to make Hua appear unchallengeable, has not been achieved. The campaign against the supposed followers of the "Gang of Four" is becoming distinctly more fierce, as the Chinese press begins to disclose evidence of continuing and persistent opposition to the leadership now headed by Hua. Nor is it by any means clear that the opposition is confined to the followers of the "gang." Indeed, some of it may probably be found inside Hua's own Politburo.
Two of the Politburo members have recently been criticized in Peking wall posters, which means that they are being sniped at by other politburo members. The time is long past when any little group of Red Guards would put up posters of its own, but even in those days the criticism of Politburo officials in posters was usually a reflection of the struggle at the top, appearing, as often as not, at the prompting of other high officials.
The two Politburo members may be Hua's opponents - but it is also possible that they are his supporters, and that the attack against them is really an attack on Hua himself. It is one of the first rules of Chinese political infighting that a powerful figure is attacked first through his associates. The two men now under attack, We Te, the mayor of Peking, and Gen. Chen Hsi-lien, the Peking region military commander, have seemed at various times in the past to side with Hua and at others to go against him. But the latest poster complaints against them could equally well have been directed against Hua himself.
The posters demand that they subject themselves to self-criticism for opposing last year's demonstrations against the Gang of Four before it was overthrown. The most powerful of these demonstrations brougth thousands of people out into the streets of Peking to demand the reinstatement of Teng Hsiao-ping, the deputy premier ousted by the four. That demonstration was indeed suppressed by the two Politburo members - but it was Hua who benefited most from their action.
The failure of the demonstration led to Teng's expulsion from the leadership and to Hua's appointment as Mao's "first" deputy, or successor-designate. There is every reason to assume, from the rules by which these games are played, that Hua was as responsible for the suppression of the demonstration as Wu Te and Gen. Chen were.
When the Gang of Four was overthrown after Mao's death, and the reinstatement of Teng Hsiao-ping was again demanded by his followers in the Politburo, his full rehabilitation was prevented for a time - again, because Hua demanded that Teng should admit certain mistakes. When Teng was finally restord to the No. 3 position in the party hierarchy last summer, he rapidly assumed a most active role in the leadership - far more active than that of the aged Marshal Yeh, in the No. 2 position, whose speeches usually pay the most elaborate tribute to Hua. By contrast, Teng confines himself in his speeches to the barest mention of Hua he can get away with - and he has been getting away with it quite successfully.
The Hua cult - which has diminished somewhat, but has by no means disappeared - seems to have suffered in proportion to the revival of Teng's fortunes. The gradual assumption of a more active role by Teng gave a new reality to the stress on collective leadership in the Chinese press, and it meant that Hua no longer towered quite as prominently above his colleagues. Hua remained not only party chairman but also prime minister, and in this capacity has had to give much of his time to ceremonial functions, which inevitably leaves him with less time for more important matters. Teng can only gain from this, and he makes no secret of it.
Some people, Teng told a recent visitor, wanted him to become prime minister. "But I won't," he said, because "all my energy would be spent on matters of protocol." He was quite satisfied, he said modestly, with being a aide to Hua - so long, presumably,, as Hua keeps out of his way and continues to devote much of his time to protocol functions.
On the surface, the tensions among the Peking leaders appear so slight as to be barely perceptible - but it would be wrong to draw from this the conclusion that the differences do not run deep. The only conclusion it is safe to draw, in the light of previous experience, is that they are managing to hide their differences somewhat more effectively than in the past. Indeed, new signs of the power struggle that are now beginning to emerge from Peking make it clear that some of the most important issues of domestic and foreign policy are in dispute in the leadership - including, once again, the question of a reconciliation with Moscow.