Hua Guofeng is in Peking, and he is still chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. This is all that official sources will say for the present about intense speculation in the foreign press and among diplomats regarding Mr. Hua's status.
But as the trial of the "gang of four" headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing, winds its way toward a close, political observers here are focusing on the next stage in the unfolding political process: the 12th congress of the Chinese Communist Party next year, the sixth plenum of the Central Committee that will precede the congress, and the leadership changes that are liklely to be announced at these party meetings.
Will Deng Xiaoping, currently Chinahs most powerful leader, complete the structure of party and government he has been painstakingly building since his return to office in 1977?
Can he pass on to his proteges and heirs a revivified party, a smoothly running government, a system of orderly succession featuring democratic elections and limited terms of office?
Mr. Hua's fate must be seen in the context of these questions, the answers to which will determine the kind of country China is to be. Most probably, the kind of China Mr. Deng wants to see will remain communist and strongly centralized, but with a pragmatic leadership responsive to public opinion and determined to avoid one-man rule.
Mr. Deng's chosen heirs are Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the Communist Party, and Zhao Ziyang, who succeeded Mr. Hua as premier at the National People's Congress in September.
China's present leaders, though diverse, share one common and searing experience: they were victims of the 10-year madness known as the Cultural Revolution, proclaimed in 1966 by Chairman Mao himself and enthusiastically promoted by Jiang Qing and her cohorts.
The ne glaring exception is Mr. Hua. He not only did not suffer during the Cultural Revolution -- He was one of its beneficiaries. He succeeded Xie Fuzhi as minister of public security in the mid-1970s and was then handpicked by Mao as Premier Chou En-lai's successor in February 1976.
Xie Fuzhi is dead, but today he is excoriated along with Kang Sheng as one of the chief persecutors of innocent citizens during the Cultural Revolution. Privately, there are Chinese who say that Mr. Hua, also, should not escape responsibility for the warrants he signed authorizing prison sentences or even death for enemies of the "gang of four" during his tenure as public security minister.
At the same time Mr. Hua, along with the age marshal, Ye Jianying, was the man who arrested the gang of four and brought their rule to an abrupt end in October 1976, one month after Chairman Mao's death. An article in the journal Red Flag, widely reprinted in Chinese newspapers Dec. 17, refers indirectly to this exploit but then says that the principal glory should go not to individuals but to the rules of historical development and to the will of the people.
What seems clear from these and other articles is that a conscious campaign is being mounted to downgrade Mr. Hua's past achievements and to make his retirement, when it comes, seem natural and perhaps even overdue. There is an unconfirmed report that Mr. Hua already has offered his resignation during a self-criticism session at a Polit-buro meeting late in November or early in December.
Some observers believe that Mr. Hua will remain chairman until the 12th congress, which is expected to be convened next spring. Another possibility is that he will leave earlier, at the sixth plenum, probably in January or early February. His likeliest successor, in either case, is Hu Yaobang.