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China lays to rest Mao's chosen successor Hua Guofeng

BEIJING (Reuters) - China laid to rest on Sunday Hua Guofeng, one of the last of the old guard from the Mao era who had been hand-picked by a dying Mao Zedong to succeed him as Communist Party chairman.

Hua, who died on August 20 aged 87, helped ease the country out of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, but was later toppled by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Hua was cremated at Babaoshan, the cemetery for the Communist Party’s elite in a western suburb of Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency said.

He was “an outstanding CPC member, a long-tested and loyal Communist fighter and a proletarian revolutionary who once held important leading posts in the CPC and the government”, Xinhua said.

A source close to the family told Reuters that both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao visited Hua in hospital before he died, in a sign of respect to the former leader.

Mao’s daughters and his grandson sent flowers, the source added.

State television showed Hu and Wen at the funeral, which was also attended by former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji.

State radio added that another guest was Deng’s son Deng Pufang, paralyzed from the waist down after mysteriously falling from a Peking University building in 1968 at the height of the turmoil unleashed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.

Hua, once fondly referred to by state media as the “Wise Leader”, became Communist Party chairman in September 1976 after Mao was quoted as saying at his death bed: “With you in charge my heart is at ease.”

Weeks later, Hua approved a military plot to arrest Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and other members of her reviled Gang of Four who were blamed for Mao’s excesses during the tumultuous, decade-long Cultural Revolution.

“His decision to arrest the Gang of Four changed China’s destiny, and the Communist Party’s destiny,” the source said. “If the Gang of Four had not been arrested, there would have been more chaos.”

But after the arrest of Mao’s widow, Hua floundered. He embraced the “two whatevers” policy, imploring China to uphold whatever policies Mao had adopted and abide by whatever instructions the late chairman had made.

His policy was eclipsed by the more pragmatic and savvy Deng, who famously admonished that “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, a slogan that epitomized China’s shift away from Maoism towards capitalist-style reforms.

Hua was forced to step down as premier in 1980 and as party chairman the next year as reformist Deng took the helm.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; editing by Tony Austin