Reading the political twists and turns in China is far from a scientific art. But it looks as if reformist Deng Xiaoping has scored a significant triumph in engineering the removal of Hua Guofeng as leader of the Chinese Communist Party and replacing him with Deng's protege Hu Yaobang. The change seems almost anticlimactic inasmuch as Hua -- Mao Tse-tung's handpicked successor -- to all intents and purposes lost his hold in the power struggle last year. Yet the formal reshuffling serves as confirmation that dog- matic Maoism is giving way to deng-led pragmatism and liberalization -- a trend that greatly heartens all who wish for China a freer and ideologically less hidebound future.
This does not mean the total eclipse of Maoist influence. Indeed Vice-Premier Deng has encountered considerable opposition in his effort to remold Chinese society. Differences remain and compromises have been made in order to achieve a consensus leadership.The fact that Hua remains on the party's Standing Committee may indicate he still has some clout and could not be pushed out altogether. The party's long-awaited assessment of the Mao era is careful not to demolish the late leader's record entirely. And the fact that Deng has assumed leadership of the party's important military commission is a sign he wants better control of the armed forces where resistance to his innovative policies has been especially felt.
If Deng has had to compromise, however, there is no doubt he has further consolidated his power. His lieutenants now occupy all the most important posts in the party and government, and the Mao loyalists have either been removed or neutralized. He is therefore in a position to pursue his goal of propelling a still weak and backward China into the modern age through more flexible and humane policies. Communist radicalism is out and this makes the world breathe easier.
What will be intriguing to watch is the performance of the newer generation of leaders whom Deng has brought to the fore, including Hu Yaobang. Will Hu, who holds the highest post in the country, begin to move out of the shadow of his older friend and mentor and carve a place for himself? He is reported to be even more forward-looking than Deng, having urged the party back in the 1950s to be more pragmatic and less ideological in its approach. He has also been even more critical of Mao.
For the moment Deng retains his preeminence despite the self-effacing secondary title he bears. But, given China's predilection for strong one-man rule, it cannot be precluded that Hu will eventually emerge as the dominant leader in fact as well as in name. This supposedly is what Deng plans.Or does he?