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A Decade of Change : China Charting New Path Without Mao at the Helm

Times Staff Writer

Li Baisheng was a high school student a decade ago, and like tens of millions of other people in China, he recalls hearing the news on the radio.

“I remember it was a dark day, with no sun at all, but not too many clouds, either,” Li, who is now 25 and works as a technician in a Peking factory, said the other day in chatting with a reporter. “Around 3 o’clock, there was a broadcast saying everyone should listen to the radio at 4 o’clock for a major announcement. When we heard, it was like being told your father died.”

For James R. Schlesinger, who was then the U.S. secretary of defense and happened to be watching a grenade-throwing exhibition at a People’s Liberation Army base outside Peking, the first hint came when a loudspeaker suddenly and unexpectedly burst into “The Internationale.”

The news: On that morning, Sept. 9, 1976, Mao Tse-tung, the architect of China’s Communist revolution and the leader of the People’s Republic of China for its first 27 years, had died at the age of 82.

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For more than four decades, Mao had been the dominant figure in Chinese life. The successful “people’s war” that he waged against China’s Nationalist government became the model for guerrilla insurgencies throughout the world. After the 1949 Communist victory, Mao wielded power over a quarter of the world’s population, power which at times exceeded even that of his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin.

In the summer of 1966, in a series of eight or 10 sunrise rallies beginning the Cultural Revolution, Mao reviewed a total of about 11 million Red Guards chanting his name in a frenzy comparable to that of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg parades in Nazi Germany.

Tuesday will be the 10th anniversary of Mao’s death, and it is clear that his demise was a watershed in modern Chinese history. Over the last decade, China has witnessed far-reaching changes in the direction and ideology of its ruling Communist Party, in the form of its socialist economy, in daily life, and even in its view of Mao himself. Indeed, some observers find it hard to believe that China has altered course so much in such a short period.

“Has it been 10 years?” University of Michigan Prof. Michel Oksenberg asked jokingly in an interview. “I would have thought it was 100.”

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‘China Has Stood Up’

What is Mao’s legacy? After a decade, how much is left of his vision for China? Why has it been possible for China to shift direction so quickly since his death? Have the Chinese people forsaken him, or the principles for which he stood?

Mao’s picture still overlooks Tian An Men Square in the heart of Peking, beneath the gate where, on Oct. 1, 1949, he declared the founding of the People’s Republic with the words “China has stood up.”

The political structure Mao set up then has remained intact, and 10 years after his death the Communist Party still keeps a firm grip on all political activity in China. Signs of dissent against the party’s rule or the socialist system are regularly suppressed.

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Nevertheless, when it comes to its economic policies and the official ideology of the Communist Party, China seems to have decided to ignore Mao and his visionary ideas, at least for now.

The official radio announcements on the day that Mao died urged the Chinese people to carry out Mao’s will by persisting in class struggle, by continuing the policy of self-reliance, and by intensifying the mass criticism of “the counterrevolutionary, revisionist line” of the recently deposed deputy premier, Deng Xiaoping.

Mao’s Policies Replaced

Now, Deng leads China. The policy of self-reliance has been replaced by one opening China to the outside world. The Chinese Communist Party has officially declared Mao’s concept of continuing class struggle to be an ideological mistake and his call for cultural revolution is held to have been a terrible disaster.

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The people’s communes through which Mao fostered collectivization throughout the Chinese countryside have disappeared. In the cities, workers strive for higher wages, bonuses and other material incentives once forbidden by Mao’s egalitarianism. Mao’s mistrust of experts has given way to an official reverence for science and technology.

Mao’s body lies in a memorial hall at Tian An Men, visited by at least 40,000 people a day. Occasionally a few of them, mainly older Chinese, weep at the sight of him. Most, however, move past with the same hurried look as Washington visitors on the White House tour.

Since 1983, Mao has had to share space in the memorial hall with new exhibition rooms honoring three other Chinese leaders: Premier Chou En-lai, Red Army Marshal Chu Teh and former head of state Liu Shao-chi. During the Cultural Revolution, Liu, whom Mao had considered a rival for power, died in obscurity after being denied medical treatment.

A few weeks ago, a spokesman at the memorial hall told a reporter she was not certain whether there would be any ceremonies there to observe the 10th anniversary of Mao’s death.

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“It will be decided by the propaganda department,” the spokesman said. “So far, we haven’t gotten our instructions.”

2-Phase Change

The radical change of course for the Chinese Communist Party has really come in two phases, one amazingly sudden, the other more gradual.

The first took place less than four weeks after Mao’s death, and amounted to a coup d’etat. On the night of Oct. 6, under the leadership of Premier Hua Guofeng and Defense Minister Ye Jianying, Chinese troops arrested Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her three closest allies in the party Politburo.

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There had been signs that these four leaders, who had spearheaded the extreme left wing of the party, insisting on ideological fervor over economic development, were planning to seize power themselves. Ever since, Chinese have referred to the roundup of this “Gang of Four” as the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

That action also cleared the way for the eventual rise to power of Deng and his allies--that is, the pragmatic wing of the party, long held in check by Mao, which favored modernization, material incentives, a reliance on expertise and an opening to the outside world.

Deng Obtained Control

Deng himself returned to Peking the following July, less than a year after Mao’s death, and quickly began to take over from Hua the control of both the party and the government apparatus.

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Ever since then, in a steady, continuing fashion, Deng and his supporters have been moving the party and the nation along the path of economic modernization. The change has been slow, and each individual step appears marginal. But over the course of a decade, these incremental changes have managed to bring the party to adopt economic measures and ideological positions that once would have been unthinkable.

In the late 1970s, for example, one of the main economic controversies was over whether the party could accept the idea of material incentives for workers, such as bonuses and wage differentials.

Maybe Even Stock Exchange

Now, material incentives are taken for granted, the party has begun to tolerate small-scale private enterprise and the cutting edge of economic debate has shifted to whether the party can find a proper Marxist justification for a stock exchange.

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Writing in the China Quarterly, Lucian W. Pye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserted that “the marvel of Deng’s China is not just the amazing reversals of Mao’s ideological politics, but the ease and rapidity with which new policies have been introduced and the alacrity with which the Chinese public has adapted to the new ground rules.”

The changes of the past decade are a reflection of “the extraordinary flexibility of Chinese pragmatism,” he said, and added, “Chinese are supreme realists, who have a vivid sense of the here and now, and who are quick to adjust their behavior in order to exploit the logic of whatever the situation in which they find themselves.”

Politically, too, Deng and his allies have moved the party leadership to a point that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. The men perceived to be Deng’s political opponents in the party these days are people who actually supported him through the 1970s against Mao and his supporters but who now believe that Deng’s reform program may have gone too far.

Ally Now Cautions

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One of them, Chen Yun, the party’s senior economic expert, argued unsuccessfully under Mao that China’s socialist economy should give some limited role to market forces. Now, in Deng’s China, Chen has been warning that the nation must still rely primarily on central planning and not move completely to a market economy.

Others, such as Politburo ideologist Hu Qiaomu, were part of Deng’s “brain trust” in the late 1970s but caution now that China’s opening to the outside world has also brought “decadent” Western influences and too much emphasis on money.

As for Mao himself, the Deng forces have worked for years to destroy his image of infallibility. There has been no single shattering event comparable with Nikita S. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Josef Stalin at the Soviet party congress in 1956. Rather, the party and the people have been reminded in lesser ways, over and over again, that in Mao’s later years life was bleak and that without him the future is brighter.

A Posthumous ‘Verdict’

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In June of 1981, the party’s full Central Committee adopted a resolution, a “verdict” on Mao, that is still the official reckoning. It calls Mao “a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist” and says that “if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes.”

But it says, too, that Mao made “gross mistakes” during the Cultural Revolution, that his “personal arbitrariness” undermined the party and that the Mao “personality cult grew graver and graver” in his later years.

Within the party leadership, the conventional view of Mao was best summarized by Chen Yun a few years ago in a speech printed in the Beijing Review.

“Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people,” Chen said. “Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished but his overall record still very good. Since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it.”

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Young Hold Harsher View

Among younger Chinese, particularly those activists who press for democracy and human rights, one hears an even harsher view of Mao.

“Mao went astray at Yanan in 1942,” a young Peking resident said recently. It was in Yanan that Mao gave a speech in effect denouncing the idea of intellectual freedom, telling writers and artists that their job was to serve the revolution and the party.

Scholars abroad believe that Mao will eventually be remembered mostly for his role in leading the successful Communist revolution and in bringing the country together after more than a century of turmoil and foreign exploitation.

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“The main legacy he leaves behind was the unification of China after a period of troubles,” Harvard University Prof. Roderick MacFarquhar said in a recent interview. “He was also responsible for asserting China’s independence in world affairs. It is Mao who declared that ‘China has stood up,’ who defied the U.S. in the Korean War and later broke with the Soviet Union.”

Old Problems Returned

But after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, MacFarquhar said, Mao failed as a leader because he brought back many of the problems of government that had arisen in imperial China. “It was essentially a restoration of the old political structure--bureaucracy, adherence to doctrine and reliance upon a leader,” he said.

Despite all the critical assessments of Mao, however, his memory is still a powerful influence on Chinese political life.

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There are millions of older Chinese who still revere Mao. Further, millions of young people who have come of age since Mao’s death could some day find his ideas attractive, particularly if they become disenchanted with the current modernization drive.

Many of those who have been accorded lower status in Deng’s China than they enjoyed a decade ago--among them factory workers, soldiers and cadres in the middle and lower ranks of the party--are tempted to look back fondly on the Mao era.

Furthermore, Mao’s deep distrust of expertise touches a responsive chord among ordinary uneducated people who dislike the special privileges granted to intellectuals these days. And Mao’s insistence that China should strive for self-sufficiency may one day be revived by those who resent the renewed foreign presence here.

Since the beginning of this year, the government has taken a number of steps that seem to be aimed at making sure there is no nostalgia for Mao in the army, the party or the nation as the 10th anniversary of his death approaches.

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A lengthy article in a People’s Liberation Army magazine last spring reminded soldiers how much better trained and equipped the military is now than it was a decade ago. Recently Deng and his aides revived a campaign for political reform and liberalization, a movement that had been dormant since 1980.

In mid-August, an official party-controlled Shanghai newspaper, the Liberation Daily, published caricatures of Deng and the party general secretary, Hu Yaobang. Cartoons of the leaders, the paper said, “show that they are ordinary people, not gods who are remote and beyond reach.” To Chinese, those last words are understood to be an oblique reference to Mao.

Urged Ban on Ceremonies

A few days later, the same Shanghai paper published an article calling for an outright ban on activities commemorating anniversaries of the deaths of Chinese leaders.

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If China had completely expunged the memory of Mao and the allure of his message, none of these measures would be necessary. Chinese authorities evidently believe that there are some people who may remember Mao more fondly than they admit.

“There is the unknown,” the University of Michigan’s Oksenberg said. “We’ve lived through an era where there has been an effort to denigrate Mao. But will there be a resurgence of positive feelings for Mao after Deng passes away? It’s possible the 10th anniversary of Mao’s death may see him at a lower ebb than the 20th.”

Next: Changes in daily life.

Party theoretician reinterprets Mao’s thought. Page 12.

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