Cambridge, Mass. — Ross Terrill is a political detective. Nominally, he is a research fellow in East Asian studies at Harvard University; but that is a front, a useful cover, a way of masking his tracks. In reality he is one of those minor spies named "China-watchers," people who sift through official communiques and offhand remarks, who study documents and badger embassies, and finally puzzle together pictures of life in that foreign land.
His biography of Mao Tse-tung was published earlier this year. Journalists call him for an expert's comment when the People's Republic makes American front pages. His articles appear in political journals and magazines like The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Saturday Review. The public library asks him to narrate slide shows. Through his studies and travels, Dr. Terrill has become a window on China for the West.
It is easier to watch China from Peking than from Cambridge, and Terrill has just returned from his sixth visit to the People's Republic. It was a four-week jaunt, taken at the invitation of China's Academy of Social Scientists, during which he lectured on Mao, Marxism, and the third world.
He is a long-faced man, a lanky Australian educated at the University of Melbourne and at Harvard. He speaks slowly, resting between phrases as if gathering strength. In a bookfilled Cambridge condominium, he tells how his latest trip convinced him that the personality cult of Mao, modern China's Buddha, is to be replaced by a more faceless brand of communism.
"The issue of Mao lurks everywhere. Communist societies have to have a theory of evil, as they are very moralistic, and right now the public line is that the 'gang of four' [an ultraleft group headed by Jiang Qing, Mao's last wife] committed some calamitous excesses. But soon there's going to be a major adjustment, with the statement that in the last 20 years of his rule Mao himself caused some catastrophes. The 'gang of four' goes on trial in September.Around them, the Central Committe of the Communist Party will make a formal statement revising Mao."
Mao, a man the West has seen as a monolith of communism, is going to be portrayed as human after all. Since Terrill's return, this prediction has been confirmed by other sources. In fact, cranes and trucks are already rumbling through Peking, stripping the city of Mao's public portraits. One statue, at a downtown university, is reportedly resisting the change: Efforts to pull it down have failed, and dynamite only blew off part of a giant stone kneecap.
Terrill says the re-evaluation will not knock Mao totally off his pedestal. It will be a balanced judgment, unlike Khrushchev's 1956 savaging of Stalin. Mao's achievements -- land reform, state ownership of industry, the reedlike flexibility that carried him to power -- will be praised.
But Terrill claims Mao will be revealed as a feudal lord who ruled with the personal dominance of an emperor. He will be criticized for his harsh treatment of associates, for a poor grasp of economics, and for an exaggerated fear of the Soviet Union.
For Americans, the discovery of flaws in political leaders is a national sport. For Chinese, especially the younger generation whose concept of Mao-as-hero has been set in concrete since the '60s, the reversal will be startling.
Terrill's Mao Tse-tung -- pieced together from documents available in the West, conversations with Chinese leaders, and the words of Mao's associates -- is more than an implacable Red giant, fired by Marxist ideology. Terrill's biography, the work of 3 1/2 years and several trips to China, depicts a Mao as complex and proud as King Lear, as much peasant king as communist.
"Mao was not one man, but five, at least," Terrill writes. "Gadfly peasant organizer who lit fires of revolt all over China. Military commander. Poet with a taste for riotous romanticism. Philosopher who gave a new moral Oriental form to Marxism. Head of a government which is the biggest bureaucracy on earth. A man of action and of vision."
As a youth, Mao shouted poems of the Tang dynasty into headwinds. He climbed mountains, plunged into icy ponds, and read adventure novels at night in defiance of his domineering father.
In the caves of Yanan, where he lived as a middle-aged revolutionary, he grew fat, let his hair grow, and seldom rose before noon; but there he shaped an army that founded an empire.
By the end, he was Chairman Mao, a symbol so mantled with power he could rule a nation while unable to comb his hair or even speak.
To his own country he was a demigod. To the West he was a tyrant. He was, in truth, vain, brilliant, impish, and at times as feudal as a wariord. Mao, calm-faced, with flat-topped ears and a penetrating gaze, began life as a farmer's son and ended it as one of the most important leaders of modern times.
"He was," sighs Terrill, "a boy of dreams and old China." There is a pause in the conversation, as Terrill thinks up what he will say next. His words come out polished and framed, ready to hang on the wall.
"I think his achievements were mainly over in 1949. There were some more to come in internal affairs until '56, and in foreign affairs right up until the 1970s. But his genius was in seizing power."
Terrill points out that Mao did unify China, a nation as large as a continent and as naturally cohesive as "a sheet of loose sand," according to the revolutionary sun Yat-sen. Yet Mao couldn't resist an occasional stirring of the pot, to keep everyone on his toes. In 1958, he ordered the Great Leap Forward, an ill-advised economic blitz Terrill describes as "more of a great lurch sideways." In the mid-1960s, Mao launched a Cultural Revolution that ended with Red Guard youth gangs running amok. Lin Biao, Mao's chosen successor, was knocked from grace in 1971 and eventually died while "fleeing to Russia."
In his last years, Terrill says, Maohs modern ideology began to wane, and the rural side of his personality became dominant. He became less interested in politics, and more "in eternal things."
"He became a pessimist in later life. He became interested in Buddhism again , and ancient history. He started to wonder whether you really can achieve anything with a revolution, or if you have to do it over again."
The result was a country governed by whim, gyrating wildly from one course to the other. Demystifying Mao, says Terrill, will help ensure China against being dominated by an incapacitated leader.
"In the new [Chinese Communist] Party constitution, being circulated privately, is a clause that limits members of the Central Committee to no more than three terms -- including the chairman."
Terrill also believes not everyone in China is thrilled about Mao's pending comeuppance.
"One or two provinces still want to hold on to Mao. And the younger people are puzzled about whaths coming. They've internalized Mao as a hero, so this is raising quite a bit of cynicism among the younger generation."
But Terrill says the change is inevitable, part of the very system Mao constructed.
"The Communist revolution modernized urban life and prouced people who are literate. Yet, inevitably, these people will come out with new values. In this sense I think Marxism is a self-destructive ideology. Any ideology of social change is, because once the society changes, people have new thoughts. Marx himself made the base for this when he said, 'It's not the ideas in our heads that determine our social existence, but our social existence that determines our thought.' If you apply that to what comes afterward, revisionism is inevitable."
Democracy will not be the result, Dr. Terrill says. China will simply move from one kind of totalitarianism to another, one with less emphasis on personality and more on the Communist Party. Mao's whims, which could loose tides of Red Guards or knock leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, deputy chairman of the Communist Party, from their posts, at times exhausted the nation, and China's current leaders don't want that to happen again.
"He had a vision of making China stronger as a nation, but he didn't have a vision of helping the individual Chinese to get a place in the sun." Terrill turns and peers ou the window, as if watching China from his living room. Then he says something that would have seemed impossible in 1965, when Mao was China.
"The Marxist national myth will go on in China, but for Mao's thought there is not much future."