Talk about your falls from grace: the sad and twisted tale of Chairman Hua Guofeng. 30 years ago today, the Chinese government announced Mao’s death to the world and Hua Guofeng was officially elevated to the title of Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. Why Hua? Because Mao’s last words, according to, uh, Hua himself were: “With you in charge, I can rest easy.”
Unfortunately, Hua went from busting up the Gang of Four and having his picture hung in Tiananmen Square right next to Mao to being shown a nice gold watch and having to turn in the key to the executive squatter at the Great Hall of the People all in a short four years. With Hua in charge, Mao might have rested easy, but with Deng in charge, Hua was made redundant. If you’ve ever seen the movie Office Space, there’s a sad note of “Milton” hanging around Hua’s later career as they shuffled him from title to title until finally unburdening him of his last official responsibility, rank and file member of the central committee, in 2002.
Poor Hua is forgotten. Our lower-division Chinese history survey never even mentions him. Ask a Chinese, “Hua Guofeng: Alive or Dead?” and wait for the response. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Deng demanded the Four Modernizations. Hua politely requested the Two Whatever’s: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” It’s a sad fate when you’re forced to play ‘Gerry’ to Mao’s ‘Nixon.’
A Chinese colleague of mine recently told–well, I guess you would call it–a joke. Mao, Deng, and Hua are walking across a bridge. The bridge suddenly breaks and they are left clinging with their bare hands to the last rope. The three of them hang there, suspended over the chasm, and the rope is about to break. The weight is too much; somebody has to let go. Deng speaks up. “Mao should not let go because he is the Chairman and Hua should not let go because he is Mao’s successor. I will sacrifice myself.” Hua is so moved by this that he turns and applauds Comrade Deng’s revolutionary spirit.
I didn’t say it was a good joke, but such is Hua’s legacy.
So the next time you see an old man wandering around Tiananmen Square mumbling to himself while staring with watery eyes at the space just to the right of Mao’s portrait, why not go and give the guy a hug. You might also hand him back his red stapler.
Bottom left picture from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Poster page.