Nothing sums up better the slavish sycophancy that Mao Zedong sought in his subordinates than the slogan adopted by the late Chinese dictator’s hand-picked heir. “We firmly uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and we unswervingly abide by whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave,” declared Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao as leader of China in 1976 and who died this week at the age of 87.
The policy approach, dubbed the “Two Whatevers”, was a natural choice for Hua, who owed his place in the top ranks of the Communist party to Mao’s favour and whose legitimacy as leader relied entirely on association with the chairman. But it was to prove a strategic error that helped his enemies to topple him in a political struggle that would pave the way for China’s emergence as a modern power.
Hua – whose original name was Su Zhu – was born on February 16 1921 to a poor family in the northern province of Shanxi. In 1938, shortly after Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, he joined resistance forces in his local area and became a member of the Communist party. His choice of nom de guerre symbolised his patriotic intentions: “Hua Guofeng” was taken from three characters from the phrase “Vanguard of Chinese people resisting the Japanese and saving the nation”.