Hua Guofeng: Successor to Chairman Mao

Chairman Mao Zedong's anointed successor, Hua Guofeng held power briefly in China between before reformists banished him from the pinnacle of the Communist Party. Known as the "Wise Leader" in contrast to Mao's "Dear Leader", Hua was the third of Mao's hand-picked successors, after Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao – and the only one to survive being chosen to this famously perilous role.

Hua became Chairman of the Communist Party of China in 1976, having supported Mao's Cultural Revolution, the 10-year period of political tumult in China that led to wide-spread chaos in the country and the persecution of millions of people. From his death bed, Mao told his successor: "With you in charge my heart is at ease."

Soon after Mao's death, Hua made the decision that secured his place in history when he approved a military plot to arrest Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, along with the other members of the Gang of Four, all of whom were blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. However, he remained a proponent of "cultural revolution" as a principle, something which earned him few friends, either among the Chinese people or within the leadership of the Party.

Hua wasn't in charge for long. The wily Deng Xiaoping, persecuted during the Mao years, was restored to political prominence in 1977, becoming vice premier as well as vice chairman of the Party. When Deng began his programme of economic reform that resulted in China's gradual opening up, he dispatched Hua to the political wilderness, accusing him of being "chief whateverist".

Hua resigned as premier in September 1980. He was replaced by the economist Zhao Ziyang, a protégé of Deng, and the following year, Deng had Hua replaced as Party Chairman by Hu Yaobang. Deng subsequently purged both Zhao and Hu. The Cultural Revolution was condemned, and Mao 's era was reassessed as "70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad." Hua faded from public life soon after, although he remained on the Party's Central Committee.

Born to a poor family in Shanxi province in 1921, Hua Guofeng became a guerrilla fighter in Mao's Communist movement at 15 when it was fighting Chiang Kai-shek's ruling Nationalists. The young cadre Hua first impressed the Great Helmsman with his idealism in 1954, and the following year Hua gave a speech to the Central Committee, a gathering of China's top leaders.

In 1959 he was made provincial Party chief in Mao's home province of Hunan, and his skill at charting a middle ground during the Cultural Revolution saw him rise through the ranks, unlike Mao's other two potential successors: Liu Shaoqi was purged and died of injuries sustained in custody, while Mao's second heir apparent, Lin Biao, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971.

Hua was named vice premier in 1976 and then premier, succeeding Zhou Enlai, as well as becoming Chairman on Mao's death. During his period in power he made a high-profile trip to the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe in 1978 and visited Britain the following year.

Little is known about Hua's final years. Some reports said he resigned from the party for health reasons in 2001, the year he turned 80.

Clifford Coonan

Hua Guofeng, politician: born Shanxi, China 16 February 1921; Vice-Governor, Hunan 1958-67; First Secretary, Communist Party of China, Hunan 1970-77; Deputy Premier and Minister of Public Security 1975-76; Acting Premier Feb-April 1976; Premier 1976-81; Chair, Central Committee of the CCP, 1976-81; Deputy Premier 1981; married Han Chih-chun; died Beijing 20 August 2008.

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