BEIJING — CHINA'S Communists are in a dither over what is politically correct.
In a country where millions have been jailed or killed for political incorrectness, controversial writings by the former secretary to communist icon Mao Zedong are rattling ideologues.
In a new book and in magazine excerpts, one-time Mao aide Li Rui attacks the founding father of present-day China and calls for a reassessment which, observers say, could shake the foundations of the world's last major surviving Communist regime.
The dispute, in which Mr. Li's opinions have been blocked from publication in a magazine, highlights what analysts call the ideological bankruptcy confronting the party amid a nationwide observance of the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth.
Sources say the article is a dangerous embarrassment at a time when the government is officially heralding Mao's accomplishments for the 1993 birthday celebration. Chinese analysts say the country's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, and reformist allies are walking a fine line on Mao amid widespread public adulation for the late leader. "This is a sensitive issue because conservatives want to take advantage of the birthday centennial to pull back reform while moderates want to use it to promote reform," say s one Chinese analyst.
Officially, the party, dominated by Mao rival Deng, still reveres the late Chinese leader but admits that he made mistakes during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, in which an estimated 1 million Chinese died or were victimized. The principal blame is placed on Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her cronies - known as the Gang of Four - who were overthrown after Mao's death in 1976.
Clinging to Mao for legitimacy in the wake of the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, the government persists in its line despite widening market reforms aimed at unraveling Maoist mismanagement and ensuring the party's survival in a world increasingly depleted of communists.
Chinese analysts say the unprecedented attack on Mao by a widely respected intimate cuts to the heart of Beijing's conundrum. To undermine the late leader for the Cultural Revolution and other excesses is to undermine communism, observers say.
"In Mao's later years, he had turned from a Marxist and proletarian revolutionary into an autocrat, acting willfully and arbitrarily," says a draft of Li's magazine article obtained by the Monitor. "China's progress, modernization, and building socialism with its own characteristics requires that we completely liberate ourselves from the shadow that still envelops us," Li writes.
"Li's articles reflect a consensus among many old comrades and theoreticians. However, the final verdict depends on Deng, and as long as Deng is alive, it is impossible to reassess Mao," says a Chinese intellectual familiar with the case. "If people start criticizing Mao seriously, stability will be upset."
In a move underscoring the sensitivity of the case, the Communist Party Propaganda Department and State Administration of Press and Publication blocked distribution in February of the first 1993 issue of Bridge, a Chinese magazine carrying Li's article, according to sources at the official All-China Association of Journalists.
The 41-page essay, titled "Tragedy: Mao's Mistakes in His Later Years," was included in a book by Li published last December. The book has not been banned.
The sources say the action was prompted by anonymous complaints to the party's ideological watchdog, which accused the magazine of "publishing something politically incorrect." Publication in the magazine is particularly sensitive because it is geared to overseas readers. Government censors took issue with the cover photo of Mao in Army uniform during the Cultural Revolution, pictures of him with the Gang of Four, and the use of the word "tragedy" in the title, despite its use in Deng's own writings.
The elderly Li, a long-time communist, became Mao's secretary in 1958, but was imprisoned following a 1959 conference at which leaders criticized Maoist economic policies. Rehabilitated by the party in 1981, the disillusioned Li decided to publish his writings in 1992 after Deng's watershed tour of southern China reinvigorated China's economic reform process. "It is necessary that Mao's mistaken leftist thinking of his later years be cleared up in real earnest, for the root cause of the deep-rooted lefti st mistakes is imbedded there," Li writes. He declined to be interviewed.
Chinese intellectuals say the controversy spotlights the ideological vacuum and slow death of the country's communist movement. "Even though the beliefs are gone, the shell is still there," says a political observer. "But no one will touch the shell because it's empty already. It will collapse by itself."