Hua Guofeng, elusive chairman of China's Communist Party, has resurfaced for the second time since he vanished from all mention in the Chinese news media Nov. 27.
Almost simultaneously, China's leaders seem to have reached a kind of consensus on how to evaluate the merits and errors of Mao Tse-tung, Mr. Hua's predecessor and founder of the People's Republic of China.
The two events seem related. Perhaps, after months of argument and wrangling , the party leadership dominated by Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping is at last ready to hold the sixth plenary session (plenum) of the current Central Committee. At this meeting both the report evaluating Chairman Mao and leadership changes including Mr. Hua will be formally adopted.
Chinese television showed Mr. Hua attending the funeral of noted novelist Mao Dun April 11. Solemn-faced, Mr. Hua stood near his rival, Mr. Deng, and Chou En-lai's widow, Deng Yingzhao. Although he retains the title of chairman, Mr. Hua's functions have in fact been divided between General Secretary Hu Yaobang, as party chairman, and Mr. Deng as head of the party's military commission.
The order of precedence at the funeral indicated by Chinese television seems to be Mr. Deng, Mme. Chou (Deng Yingzhao), Mr. Hu, and Mr. Hua. It would appear that Chinese viewers are being prepared for Hua's demotion, expected to take place formally at the sixth plenum. It is expected that the assembly will accept his resignation as chairman, and then elect him one of several vice-chairmen.
In a meeting with a visiting Japanese newspaper delegation, Premier Zhao Ziyang, a protege of Mr. Deng, said that "it will not be long" before the sixth plenum is held. It may come before the end of this month, although May seems more likely.
The plenum will show the extent to which Mr. Deng has managed to consolidate his hold over the party and the armed forces. One litmus test of Mr. Deng's authority will be the extent to which party and Army leaders accept the evaluation of Chairman Mao that Mr. Deng proposes: that although the chairman made serious mistakes during the latter part of his life, "His merits were primary and his mistakes secondary."
"Without Chairman Mao," Mr. Deng has said, "the Chinese people would at the very least have had to grope in the dark for a much longer time." This remark was quoted in a long article by General Huang Kecheng in the Liberation Army Daily, organ of the armed forces, April 10. The article took up all the paper's front page and half of another page, and was reprinted in full in the People's Daily and other major Chinese newspapers the following day.
General Huang in essence follows the Deng line. What gives his article a certain piquancy is that much more than Mr. Deng, the general was a victim of Chairman Mao's wrath. Chief of staff of the armed forces and a member of the powerful party secretariat in the 1950s, General Huang was purged with Defense Minister Marshal Peng Dehuai in 1959 and did not resurface until after the fall of the "gang of four" and Mr. Deng's rehabilitation in 1977.
General Huang is now permanent secretary of the party's Central Discipline Inspection Committee. His article was a rewrite of a speech originally delivered at the committee meeting last November. In the article, he refers to the fact that he himself "suffered during Chairman Mao's declining years," and expresses understanding for the indignation felt by "comrades who were attacked and persecuted" during those years. Nevertheless, he says, to say that "Chairman Mao did nothing good at all is not only contrary to the facts, but extremely harmful to our party and people."
General Huang also supports another of Mr. Deng's contentions -- that Chairman Mao should not have to bear sole responsibility for his mistakes and that members of the party Central Committee, including Mr. Deng himself, should also share part of the responsibility. General Huang says that as a member of the secretariat in the days of the antirightist campaign, he himself agreed to the intensification of the original campaign under which many were falsely labeled rightist on the flimsiest of excuses.
Will these contentions be sufficient to quell the deep hurt that many victims of the Cultural Revolution and of the preceding antirightist campaign still feel over Chairman Mao's errors? The "gang of four," headed by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, have been assigned criminal responsibility for their usurpation of power during the 10 years of turmoil 1966-76.
Is this line on Mao credible? Will it really end the controversy over a larger-than-life figure admitted to be the greatest contributor to the victory of the Chinese communist revolution but who then came close to destroying the very government and party he founded?
That is a question no party plenum can solve. The verdict rests with history.