The passing of the old guard

Transitional leader Hua Guofeng passes away at 87

JDM080821hua.jpg

Hua Guofeng, leader of China for a short time in the wake of Mao's death, died yesterday. Xinhua issued a short obituary (Hecaitou notes that there are 101 characters, including punctuation).

A commenter on a Xinhuanet thread memorializing Hua succinctly sums up his place in Chinese history:

laorwhy: At one stroke you smashed the Gang of Four and ended the Cultural Revolution; bringing China's period of chaos to a close showed your courage and resolve. Carrying out a peaceful transition between the first and second generation of leaders is proof of your great vision. Thank you for opening up for us the door to peace. The people will forever remember you.

He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, assessed Hua's legacy in a short blog post:

For people of our generation, Hua Guofeng was an important name, but it was also one that passed from celebration into silence with incredible speed. Because previous potential successors had all met with failure, when Mao knew his days were numbered, Hua won a chance for a rapid promotion (this may have been related to the fact that Hua was head of Mao's home province of Hunan). Because he did not have much of a high-level base and was relatively uninvolved in the power struggles at the time, he became an important symbol in the uncertain post-Mao period.

Intertia from the cultural revolution was still a potent force on thinking at the time. I remember that when people held meetings, the hall would usually have big photos of Mao and Hua hanging front and center. Mao was called "great teacher" (伟大导师) and Hua was the "wise leader" (英明领袖). The official statement on the arrest of the Gang of Four was "The Party Central Committee led by Chairman Hua smashed the Gang of Four." Singers performed a song praising him: "In Jiaocheng's mountains, Jiaocheng's rivers, Jiaocheng has brought forth a Commissar Hua." His thick Jiaocheng, Shanxi accent and his calligraphy (said to be in the style of Yan Zhenqing) made the biggest impression on people, and the nameplates of newspapers and even institutions like Renmin University were written in Hua's Yan script.

But Hua was destined to play just a transitional role. This was partly due to his shallow power base, but also because he had neither the ability nor the inclination to lead China out of the Mao era. His position as supreme leader was quickly taken over by the intrepid and forceful Deng Xiaoping. And while his ouster was somewhat murky, it was fairly peaceful. Aside from the inscription on Mao's Memorial Hall, all the rest of Hua's Yan script has disappeared. It is said that every year on the date of Mao's birth and death, he went to the hall to pay his respects; perhaps that was a chance to see one of his rare remaining inscriptions. People were still able to get a glimpse of him on certain occasions, but he no longer openly expressed his views on any political issues.

Today, Hua Guofeng passed away at 87, after a fairly long life. The official Xinhua News Agency gave him this appraisal: "an outstanding CPC member, a long-tested and loyal Communist fighter and a proletarian revolutionary." If, in the next world, he has the chance to see Mao again, how will he describe China over the past thirty years?

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Hua's inscription for Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall

Interestingly, both laorwhy's and He Weifang's posts contain the word 果敢, "courageous and resolute." He uses it to describe Deng, while laorwhy applies it to Hua himself.

He mentions a song referring to "Commissar Hua," which was a title Hua first picked up in 1945 when he became political commissar in his home county of Jiaocheng. Hua's original name was actually Su Zhu (苏铸), and his children go by that surname. Su adopted the name Hua Guofeng in 1938 as an abbreviation of "China Anti-Japanese National Salvation Vanguard" (中华民族抗日救国先锋). Biographer Ye Yonglie notes this and other aspects of Hua's pre-liberation career in a blog post drawn from his book Deng Xiaoping Changed China.


English-language blogs

¤ Black and White Cat takes a look at Chairman Hua's various roles in propaganda posters at the time.

¤ Peijin Chen has a few screenshots of domestic media headlines about Hua's passing.

¤ Jeremiah Jenne at the Granite Studio blog has always been a Hua fan, and he promises a proper tribute. In the meantime, check out his annual appreciations of the man. Update (2008.08.25): Why Hua Guofeng matters....no, seriously.

¤ Victor Shih is a proponent of the view that Hua was Mao's son as an explanation for his meteoric rise to power.

¤ DJ at Fool's Mountain finds a forum comment that sums up Hua as a "nice person, an altruistic person, and a moral person." (2008.08.25)

¤ China Media Project gives an overview of how Hua's death was handled in the mainland's newspapers (2008.08.25)

¤ More reactions are collected in a fine post at The China Beat (2008.08.26)

Mainstream media obituaries: New York Times, BBC, AP, Washington Post

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A good and honest man is gone.

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