Thinking back to the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976, I have to pinch myself to remember the disarray that the country was in then following a decade of Cultural Revolution, and how difficult it was to piece together from the outside what was really happening in the power struggle between the radicals and reformers within the party’s elite that was coming to a head even before Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong died that year.
My mind turns back to those days now because of the death of Hua Guofeng, Mao’s loyal and somewhat enigmatically anointed successor, at age 87. (Terse Xinhua annoucement here.) Remember Mao’s “With you in charge, my heart is at ease” deathbed line? A flimsy claim of legitimacy for a successor, especially one who had only made the Politburo five years earlier, but sufficient in the chaotic circumstances of the time.
Hua was a Mao loyalist to the core and his steady plod to the apex of power owed more to that loyalty and a knack of keeping his head down than any proficiency as a bureaucrat or ideologue. He would soon be elbowed aside by the wily old survivor Deng Xiaoping, and drift into obscurity. But in the few weeks after Mao’s death, Hua changed China’s destiny by sanctioning the army’s arrest of the Gang of Four.
It may have been a reluctant decision, especially as one of the quartet was Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. And it may have been made out of a well-exercised instinct for self preservation. Hua also clearly had no idea what to do next politically or economically, beyond looking more and more like his beloved Mao — something Deng would soon turn against him.
But with the hindsight of three decades, it is clear that with one decision Hua brought down the curtain on the tumultuous Mao era he had devoted his life to and ensured that the stage was set for those who would reform the economy and open the country to the world. It was his solitary mark on history, but a profound one.