Why Hua Guofeng matters…no, seriously.

I wanted to write this last week, but never found the time. I actually wanted to write it two weeks ago, but Xinhua waited before making Hua’s death ‘official’ to release the news.  There were, after all, medal counts to consider. And in the end, isn’t that fitting? Hua gets a couple of lines and photo on the bottom of the page while the national media prints multi-page full-color spreads mourning the Achilles tendon of a certain hurdler.

I’ve compiled a brief survey over at The China Beat of the various homages, obituaries, and ‘who died?’ pieces published this past week.  Most of them make note of Hua’s passing while dismissing him as a transitional figure forced to make way for Deng Xiaoping after being in power only a few short years. In essence, Hua was political roadkill on the superhighway of China’s economic miracle.

It’s not entirely fair. Now, granted not everybody gets my fascination with Hua, but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m the guy who puts Frank Stallone CDs on at parties.

Hua’s rise to “power” was not quite as sudden as most believe, neither is it likely that Hua was Mao’s son as is sometimes rumored. After a decade as Party Secretary in Hunan province, currying favor with the Great Helmsman by praising Mao’s policies, turning Mao’s home into a revolutionary shrine, and overseeing a factory whose claim to fame was producing over 30 million Mao buttons in a single year, Hua was brought to Beijing in the early 70s, first as a staffer to Zhou Enlai and then to help oversee the investigation into the Lin Biao affair. Hua handled the latter task well enough that in 1975 he was named Minister of Public Security.  Hua had arrived, but he was still in many ways a provincial official, without the networks and ties to power which characterized his fellow Central Committee members.  In the short term, this lack of political connections would mark him as the perfect compromise candidate, but in the long term his inability to compete with Deng Xiaoping at the age-old game of calling in political chits doomed Hua to irrelevance and then to obscurity.  Such is often the lot of candidates chosen through compromise.

In 1976, following Zhou Enlai’s death, Hua was moved into the role of premier while Deng was hustled back into political exile.  When Mao died later that same year Hua was last man standing, but in many ways he might have been the perfect choice for the job.  It is easy to forget now how close the Chinese government (and, likely, the country) came to being ripped apart by the centrifugal forces of partisanship, ambition, and a Party and nation weakened and fractured by 10 years of Cultural Revolution. The group who would later be known as the Gang of Four was actively trying to seize the reins of government in Beijing, even as they were arming allied militias in Shanghai and other cities. In such a situation, for a polarizing figure such as Deng Xiaoping to immediately assume power could have touched off a powder keg of intramural violence in which militias acting in support of the Gang would be forced into armed conflict with army units under the control of Deng allies in the PLA upper echelons.

Hua’s lack of factional ties, his Cultural Revolutionary credentials, and his trump card of “with you in charge, I can rest easy” made him a tough figure to immediately oppose on the grounds of being “anti-Mao” and this may have bought time for the disparate forces opposed to Mao’s widow Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four to come together.  Nevertheless, Hua’s move to consolidate his position with the help of Lin Biao’s successor Ye Jianying threatened the Gang’s plans.  Behind closed doors, Hua and Jiang Qing reportedly clashed in a series of heated meetings with Hua stubbornly refusing to allow her to take over the Central Committee. Jiang Qing, for her part, called Hua “incompetent” and along with fellow conspirators, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan, plotted to assassinate Hua, Ye, and several other key political figures in a bloody bid for power.*

Acting as a go-between, Ye Jianying reached out to Deng Xiaoping, then in Guangdong under the protection of General Xu Shiyou. According to one version, at a secret meeting Ye Jianying and Xu Shiyou, along with Deng protégé Zhao Ziyang, agreed that in event of a Gang of Four coup involving armed militias, an alliance of different military regions, including Fuzhou, Guangdong, and Nanjing, would support the establishment of a new central committee in opposition to Beijing.

Whether Hua was the ringleader or merely a follower in what happened next we really don’t know, but on October 5, 1976, he was at the center of a planned counter-coup which used a strategy so complex it might as well have called for a Land Shark knocking on the door and announcing: “candygram.” Ye Jianying secured the allegiance of Wang Dongxing, in charge of the elite military squadron Unit 8431, as well as Chen Xilian, the head of the Beijing military garrison.  Hua then invited the Gang of Four for an emergency midnight meeting of the politburo. Three were summarily arrested and imprisoned by Wang’s men as they arrived at the meeting site (though Wang Hongwen didn’t go without a fight, injuring several of his captors). Jiang Qing was arrested later by Unit 8431 soldiers in her bedchamber.


Whatever Hua’s role, he emerged on October 6 with an impressive array of titles: Chairman of the CCP Central Committee, Premier of State, and chairman of the Central Military Commission. On October 24, 1976 a million citizens and soldiers filled Tiananmen Square to greet the new Chairman while the propaganda department worked overtime to create images of Hua (with, some might argue, increasingly Mao-like facial features and form) striking all the necessary Chairman poses: teaching peasants, meeting workers, being worshipped by minority groups. The message, it seems: whatever Mao could do, Hua could do better almost as well.

Hua reversed many Cultural Revolution-era policies: allowing greater academic and artistic freedom, and instituting a series of ambitious (if not particularly well thought out) schemes for economic growth.  His 10-Year Plan hearkened back to the pre-Great Leap policies of the 1950s even as it built on plans for modernization first put forth by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping: Collectivized agriculture and natural resource extraction producing necessary surpluses for industrial, technological, and military modernization., while at the same time opening China to foreign investment in key sectors.  Under Hua’s watch, economic exchanges, especially with Japan, brought in billions in foreign capital.

For all the mockery Hua’s “Two Whatevers (两个凡是)” Policy (“We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave”) received, Hua might have been dumb like a fox. Figuring that the economic and modernization programs of Deng and Zhou Enlai might be too much, too soon for some in the Party, he cloaked the beginnings of  the Reform and Opening Era in Maoist rhetoric, gradually dismantling the Mao legacy while paying tribute to the Chairman himself, including putting forth lavish plans for the “Maoseleum,” a place that all of China’s people could visit and show respect to the Chairman’s desiccated remains.

It just wasn’t enough.

Hua’s legitimacy rested on his being Mao’s chosen successor, but as the crushing yoke of the Cultural Revolution was lifted, the urban intelligentsia began showing signs of renewed vigor and long-repressed anger. A new style of short story, known as “Victims” or “Wounded” literature, emerged, as did posters denouncing the Gang of Four…even as Beijingers waggled five fingers when discussing the Gang. (Four for those in jail, and the other for the man about to be embalmed under glass.)  As more and more cadres and academics were rehabilitated and returned to positions of power and prominence, their sympathies turned naturally to Deng Xiaoping, perceived by many to have suffered as they did during the vicissitudes of the Cultural Revolution.

Over time, Hua found that being Mao’s chosen successor was more political liability than asset.

Moreover, while Hua had the titles, Deng had the connections. If anything, Deng’s ascendance and Hua’s swift slide into political irrelevance demonstrated how titles mattered little, it was factional networks which dominated the often byzantine world of post-GPCR politics. There were no great purges; that Hua was removed so thoroughly without resort to violence or imprisonment suggests just how politically impotent Deng and his cronies considered Hua to be.

In any case, the doubt over who would lead China in the post-Mao era ended with the Third Party Plenum in 1978. Deng Xiaoping gave the keynote address and his protegés Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang emerged as leading figures within the Party. Within two years, Hua would be stripped of his positions. First, Hu Yaobang was named head of the CCP Central Committee, then Zhao Ziyang took over as Premier, and finally, in the coup de grace, Deng took control of the all important Central Military Commission in 1980. Hua was allowed to linger on in the Central Committee until 2002, but his political career was effectively over.

Hua’s death last week was greeted by a lot of ‘who cares?’ and ‘so whats?’ buried amidst the hype of China’s gold medal chase and the overall excitement of the Games; but if we are to accept that the economic miracle which made the 2008 Beijing Olympics possible begins with Deng Xiaoping, we should also remember that Deng’s elevation to power was not inevitable, and that at a time when the PRC seemed precariously fragile, Hua provided, at the very least, a steady hand on the wheel until the forces of economic reform could regroup and find a politically feasible time to emerge and led China in a new direction. Hua was neither brilliant nor inspirational; he was the butt of jokes and the triumph of moderate mediocrity, but at a crucial moment in China’s recent past, he might just have been the right man for the job.


* The story of the arrest of the Gang of Four is based on Hsu, 2000.


Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China. Sixth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After. 3rd Edition. New York: Free Press, 1999

Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

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