By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Hua Guofeng had introduced a 10-year plan for national economic development. However, his economic policies had begun to falter due to inadequate planning and preparation. As Hua faltered, Deng Xiaoping took full advantage, exploiting Hua’s vulnerabilities and capitalizing on his weaknesses. By the middle of 1977, Deng’s supporters were pressing hard for their hero’s rehabilitation.
False Accusation against Deng
As Deng Xiaoping and his supporters rallied for Deng’s rehabilitation, Hua Guofeng parried and played for time as best he could, for as long as he could. However, at the 11th Party Congress in July of 1977, he bowed to the inevitable. He acknowledged that Deng had, in fact, been falsely accused by Jiang Qing. But even as he heaped blame on Jiang, he carefully deflected attention away from his own failure to oppose this glaring miscarriage of justice.
Hua’s argument wasn’t terribly compelling. He claimed that the reason he didn’t act immediately to clear Deng’s good name was that he had been trying to protect Chairman Mao’s failing health. He also tried to share the blame with the entire Politburo for the failure to oppose the purge of Deng Xiaoping.
Learn more about Hua’s educational and cultural reforms.
Mao’s Role in the Qingming Episode
Though Hua tried valiantly to shun personal responsibility for Deng’s dismissal, he could not easily explain away Mao’s own role in the Qingming episode.
It was Mao who had personally ordered Deng’s dismissal, based on fabricated evidence supplied by the Gang. At the very least, this raised significant questions about Mao’s judgment in the last months of his life. Equally serious, it cast grave doubts on Mao’s carefully preserved reputation for infallibility.
But Hua’s problems didn’t end there. For if Mao had been muddled and confused at the time of the Tiananmen incident in early April 1976, how could anyone be sure that he had been entirely compos mentis three weeks later, when he scribbled the famous phrase, “With you in charge, my heart rests easy”.
For all of these reasons, Hua had to tiptoe very gingerly around the entire Qingming-Tiananmen episode.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hua at the 11th Party Congress
Qingming was the proverbial elephant in the room at the 11th Party Congress.
So lightly did Hua tread, that in a two-hour speech to this Congress—a speech he devoted an enormous amount of time to detailing the evil deeds of the Gang of Four—he never even once mentioned, or even alluded to the Tiananmen incident of April 1976.
It was as though Qingming never happened. Soon enough, however, Hua’s blind loyalty to Mao would prove to be his Achilles heel, the source of his undoing.
The Inevitable Showdown
By the late summer of 1977, a showdown between Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng had become all but inevitable. Knowing Hua’s vulnerability on the question of Mao’s fallible judgment, Deng played his cards carefully, even masterfully. Placing Hua on the defensive, he first finessed him, then sandbagged him, and then finally effectively blitzed him.
In late 1977, Hua, now clearly in the defensive mode, proclaimed that it was impermissible to question “whatever Chairman Mao said or approved”. In response, Deng’s supporters sarcastically labeled Hua Guofeng and his allies as the “whatever faction” (the fanshi pai).
They argued that no one, not even Chairman Mao, had a monopoly on truth or wisdom. Truth can only be found, they insisted, by analyzing facts on the ground, not by reciting quotations from supposedly infallible leaders.
Learn more about Hua’s clashes with Jiang Qing.
The issue of how best to seek truth was addressed head on at an important party political work conference in the spring of 1978. At that meeting, Deng launched a sharp attack on the very concept of “whateverism”, and in the process, he neatly hoisted Hua Guofeng and his fellow loyalists on their own Maoist petard. He cleverly turned Mao’s own words against Hua Guofeng’s “whateverism.”
After the work conference ended, beleaguered members of Hua’s loyalist faction tried to blunt Deng Xiaoping’s attack by claiming that Deng had one- sidedly and disingenuously employed Mao’s words to “cut down the banner of Mao’s Thought”, reminiscent of raising the red flag to oppose the red flag in the Cultural Revolution.
But their counterattack failed to generate traction, and by the early summer of 1978 it was apparent that Deng had succeeded in capturing the ideological high ground with his “seek truth from facts” salvo.
Thereafter, his offensive against Hua Guofeng’s “whatever” faction gained rapid momentum. Soon, a bandwagon effect occurred, as a growing number of party and army leaders began to publish articles echoing Deng’s position in the mass media.
Questioning Maoist Legacy
After opening the door to questions about Mao’s fallibility, Deng next sought to cast doubt on other aspects of the Maoist legacy—including the chairman’s presumptive right to appoint his own successor.
Deng’s supporters now decried this practice, calling it a remnant of China’s feudal past, and a clear violation of the Communist Party’s long-established principle of “collective leadership”.
Conveniently, Deng’s friends never mentioned the embarrassing fact that for over 40 years Mao had made all the important decisions by himself, and that not even his top lieutenants—including Deng Xiaoping himself— had openly or directly challenged Mao’s singular dominance over policy making.
Like so many other lofty Communist Party principles, the norm of collective leadership had been honored much more in the breach than in the observance.
Common Questions about the Showdown between Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping
At the 11th Party Congress in 1977, Hua Guofeng bowed to the inevitable and acknowledged that Deng had been falsely accused by Jiang Qing.
In 1977, Hua Guofeng was in the defensive mode and proclaimed that it was impermissible to question “whatever Chairman Mao said or approved”. In response, Deng’s supporters sarcastically labeled Hua Guofeng and his allies as the “whatever faction”.
Deng’s supporters decried the practice of Chairman Mao’s presumptive right to appoint his own successor by calling it a remnant of China’s feudal past, and a clear violation of the Communist Party’s long-established principle of “collective leadership”.