The face, frozen in an unconvincing smile, was once ubiquitous in Peking. It was to be seen regularly at official functions in the government high rise offices which commingle with the imperial splendor of gold-roofed palaces. It peered with revolutionary zeal from wall posters alongside the face of late chairman Mao Tse-tung. But recently, the smile of Chairman Hua Guofeng, 60-year-old protégé and handpicked successor of the great helmsman, has been conspicuous only because of its absence. Last week speculation intensified that Hua, squeezed out of the premiership last September, was about to make an equally ignominious exit as party chairman.
As with most clues to Hua’s fate, the latest came in veiled form. The official newspaper, the People ’s Daily, took the unprecedented step of criticizing Mao for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, charging that he personally launched and directed the upheaval and, in so doing, “heaped great misfortune on the party and people.” That was not news to the millions of Chinese familiar with the “little red book” issued by Mao during the period. However, as sinologists were quick to point out, the editorial was by implication equally critical of Hua, Mao’s heir, the last of the helmsman’s radical lieutenants to cling to power and, as such, the final psychological bridge with the past.
Earlier signs that Hua was on the slide had not been lacking. The jowly chairman did not participate in a recent Sino-Japanese ministerial conference, and when a visiting delegation of Greek Communists asked to meet him last month officials explained that the party chief was too busy. Most tellingly, the Chinese foreign ministry did nothing to squelch the growing rumors.
Speculation about a successor, meanwhile, increasingly focused on Hu Yaobang, the man who has taken Hua’s place at official functions and is currently general secretary of the party. The scion of a poor peasant family, Hu has little or no formal education but, like his mentor, Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, the de facto ruling force in Peking, Hu envisions a pragmatic future for China.
Discussion of the chairman’s fate has overshadowed the trial of the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and six other former officials, which last week entered its closing stages with the prosecutor demanding the death sentence for Jiang Qing. But that, too, is believed to have a bearing on Hua’s fate in that it provides a precedent for dealing with Maoists. Will Hua follow Jiang Qing into the dock? Current speculation says not. At an angry politburo meeting, he is reported to have agreed to hand over his chairmanship in ex-
change for being spared the ordeal. In any case, his departure will mark a major landmark: the first time in China’s more than 4,000 years of recorded history that a complete power shuffle has been accomplished with a reliance on mass communications rather than massed armies. As Deng is intensely aware, Hua’s exit, expected at this month’s meeting of the Central Committee, would mark the culmination of China’s latest revolution.
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