Former Communist Party chairman Hua Guofeng, who virtually has been cut off from Chinese political life in the months surrounding his demotion and disgrace last June, received his first foreign guest in nearly a year today.
Diplomatic sources cautioned, however, that the meeting with former Japanese foreign minister Masayoshi Ito was merely a courtesy call and that it should not be seen as a sign of political comeback for Hua, who has been criticized for pursuing leftist policies.
The sources pointed out that continued attacks against Hua in the official press suggest that the party reformers who forced his demotion to the rank of junior vice chairman may be planning to oust him completely from leadership posts at the party congress scheduled for next year.
In the arcane world of Chinese politics, the job of receiving distinguished foreign visitors is carefully reserved for the handful of top power holders. The meetings are treated as major media events.
Today's meeting with Ito received considerably less fanfare. A brief item in New China News Agency noted that the conference took place at the Great Hall of the People and that Ito thanked Hua for visiting Japan twice last year while he was party chairman.
Ito first requested to meet with Hua last December while Ito was in Peking with the Japanese Council of Ministers. It was during that time that party reformers began engineering Hua's removal, forcing him to criticize himself and offer his resignation at a Central Committee work session.
The Central Committee formally dumped Hua June 29, declaring he was "no longer fit" to be chairman partly because of his slavish devotion to the leftist policies of his mentor, the late chairman Mao Tse-tung.
The last time Hua met official foreign guests was November 1980, when he received visiting Romanians. From November until April, he completely disappeared from public view. Part of the time he was said to be at a special party school where wayward cadres go to have their thinking reformed.
Finally on April 7 he was shown on television greeting Vietnamese defector Hoang Van Hoan, who now resides in China. The meeting was seen at the time as a move by Hua's enemies to reassure foreign and domestic critics that the then-party chairman was not being harshly treated.
Since his June demotion, Hua has continued to undergo sharp criticism for being too closely identified with Mao, who handpicked him as his successor in 1976.
Western diplomatic sources believe the continued attacks are part of a larger strategy by the now dominant bloc of party moderates to remove Hua completely as a possible rallying point for any remaining Maoists opposed to the current pragmatic drift of economic and political decisions.