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Chinese put Mao behind them

By Julian BaumStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1986


`WHEN I was a child, I loved Chairman Mao,'' said a young man in his mid-20s. ``Now I try not to think about him.'' Popular attitudes toward Mao Tse-tung, first chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, have cooled sharply since his death 10 years ago today. Much credit for deflating his image and picking up the pieces of a fragmented and demoralized society must go to China's ``venture communist,'' senior leader Deng Xiaoping.

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He has pried the Chinese people's attention away from politics toward economic development and defined national salvation largely in terms of material prosperity.

Attacking the communal-mindedness Mao preached and exploited, Deng has asked his people to look more within themselves. He has wrenched the country away from expecting so much from its leaders and promised results from adapting Western economic theories and management practices to Chinese circumstances.

Driven to worship a communist emperor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many Chinese have tried to put behind them the terrible cost of those years, when Mao's personality cult reached grotesque proportions. It was a phenomenon that inspired some of the most bizarre forms of political warfare and human cruelty a sovereign nation has voluntarily inflicted upon itself.

There will be no official commemoration of Mao's passing, though a new edition of his selected works goes on sale today. The two-volume edition includes articles written from 1921 to 1965, including some never before published. The editors have added detailed footnotes to show Mao's contradictions in the post-1965 period.

Although he too came from peasant roots, Deng was alert to the pitfalls of exalting one man's accomplishments above all others. He attended the 1956 Moscow meeting in which Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin's personality cult, and reported favorably to Peking on Khrushchev's move.

In 1966, Deng was attacked for his views by the Red Guards, who correctly judged him opposed to Mao's glorification.

Deng commented in 1980 that the mausoleum erected by Mao's immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, should never have been built. But the building remains a rude intrusion in Peking's Tian An Men Square and attracts thousands of visitors each week.

The hours for visiting the mausoleum have recently been extended and the lines are longer this summer, though observers say this is mainly because prosperous peasants from the provinces are visiting Peking in larger numbers than ever before (almost a million travelers a day pass through the city).

The lines of Chinese tourists hint at just how different people's attitudes are toward Mao across Chinese society. Although his picture has been removed from most peasant homes (replaced with glossy calendars showing movie stars and pop singers), reverence for Mao appears to linger in the countryside.

One foreign traveler, who recently spent several months in remote rural areas of central China, returned to Peking quite sure that Mao's image as a national hero remains strong.

``If Deng's reforms begin to falter seriously after he leaves and his policies are discredited, a Maoist revival could fill the vacuum,'' the traveler commented.