Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, whose knack for conciliation made him the consensus choice in 1976 to lead China, finds himself politically isolated today and apparently headed for his second major demolition in recent months.
Four years after a million Chinese jammed Tienanmen Square to hail him as Mao Tsetung's seccessor, he has disappeared from public view. To visiting foreign officials who ask to meet him and friends who call his home, he is "unavailable," according to reliable sources.
Last week, amid unofficial reports that he will step down as early as next month, the Communist Party's theoretical journal, Red Flag, published a caustic political criticism clearly aimed at Hua, although he remained unnamed. The commentary was reprinted the next day on the front pages of China's major newspapers.
When asked for the whereabouts or political future of the man once lauded as "the wise leader of Communist Party and worthy successor" to Mao, government spokesmen offer the stock reply: "We don't know."
Although such seemingly clear signs of demise often prove misleading in China's murky political waters, they certainly spell further trouble for Hua, whose power has dwindled steadily in recent months -- capped by his resignation as premier in September.
Even before dropping out of public sight nearly a month ago, Hua had been little more than a figurehead leader, tending to ceremonial chores while a group of veteran politicians led by senior Vice Chairman Deng Xiaopong ran the government and party.
Hua's political perils come as little surprise to Peking watchers. Too young to have participated in the historic Long March of 1934 and too provincial to have made the personal contacts needed to run the nation's vast bureaucracy, he lacks these two most important prerequisites for lasting power in China.
What most observers could not have predicted, however, was that Hua would hasten his own slide by abandoning his knack for compromise -- the political quality that gave him prominence and enabled him to leap from the middle levels of local bureaucracy to the country's top ranks in less than a decade.
As the compromise candidate to replace Mao in 1976, Hua echoed the radical slogans of the party's leftists while winning over the moderate wing with his emphasis on party unity and economic reconstruction. He seemed a good choice to lead a party ravaged by 10 years of infighting during the Cultural Revolution.
Although his centrist stance served him well while party fighting continued for months after his elevation, Hua began losing the initiative in 1977 when Den returned to power and maneuvered to appoint his allies to key posts in the party, Army and government while purging leftist holdovers from the Cultural Revolution.
Suddenly outflanked by Deng's new team of pragmatists and having lost his leftist constituency. Hua set out on an independent course for the first time in his career, apparently hoping to build his own base to conserve his power and prove he was more than a historical quirk.
Ironically, the very efforts of the genial, slightly rumpled politician to carve out his own historical niche have become grist for his opponents today.
Last week's Red Flag commentary, which is said to have been cleared by the party's top echelon, was especially critical of what it called a "Feudalistic" cult of personality practiced after Mao's death in 1976.
While avoiding direct mention of Hua, the article was seen as an attack on his for allowing the Communist press in 1977 to glorify him in poems, articles and songs. Portraits of Hua were hung alongside Mao's in public places.
The theoretical tract centered its attack on party officials who stray from a "thoroughgoing materialistic spirit," meaning the brand of pragmatism advocated by Deng, including the use of material incentives and work bonuses to increase labor productivity.
Hua has openly criticized the material incentives program, reportedly infuriating Deng several months ago when he revived the old Maoist call for political incentives in a speech to sympathetic military officers.
Red Flag's call for pragmatism also was seen as a slap at the economic program uveiled by Hua in 1978 only to be discredited as unrealistic a short time later.
Although Hua has generally supported Deng's policies, Deng is said to view the chairman as a potential rallying point for disgruntled bureaucrats who dislike the new pragmatic programs and have the power to sabotage key portions of them.
Reportedly impatient with persistent bureaucratic obstructions, Deng is said to have decided several weeks ago to remove Hua as a symbol of resistance and replace him with his protege, party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.
According to diplomatic sources, Deng persuaded Hua to resign at a stormy meeting of the ruling Politburo when he pressed to implicate the chairman in the ongoing trial of radical leaders of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Hua, the only active Chinese leader whose career prospered during that chaotic decade, is said to be vulnerable because he headed the secret police when they violently suppressed an antileftist demonstration in Peking's Tienanmen Square in April 1976.