The Communist Party secretary of an agricultural commune about 200 miles south of Peking was recently asked what he thought of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
Unhesitatingly he replied, "Chairman Mao is the great savior of China. Without him there would have been no liberation and no People's Republic of China."
He was then reminded that the chairman had been criticized for the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 and for the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1959, both of which the party secretary himself had severely criticized in previous conservations with this reporter.
The party secretary, visibly agitated, replied with great passion. "Of couse , Chairman Mao was a human being, not a god, and therefore he was fallible," he said. "No one is perfect. But I am completely opposed to the public criticism of Chairman Mao."
In Peking, portraits of Chairman Mao have disappeared from most public places. In the rural commune I had been visiting, all the homes I entered had pictures of Chairman Mao and of his successor, Hua Guofeng, side by side in the place of honor.
This is an example of the dilemma that confronts Peking's current leadership in seeking to reevaluate Mao and to bring to trial the "gang of four," who practically ruled China during the last 10 years of Mao's life. The most prominent member of the gang is Jiang Qing, Mao's widow.
In conversations with a visiting Yugoslav delegation, party propaganda chief Wang Renzhong said that the "gang of four" would be brought to trial soon, by the end of September or early in October. But there are indications that the trial has been delayed, and that one of the chief problems is Mao's relationship with the four.
In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev could praise Lenin, who founded the Soviet state, and excoriate Stalin, who succeeded Lenin after a power struggle with Trotsky. The Chinese leadership's dilemma is that Mao is in a sense both the Lenin and the Stalin of the Chinese state -- the man without whom the People's Republic of China would never have come into being, and at the same time the man later responsible for what Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping recently said was the "decimation of revolutionary cadres" in the "civil war" known as the Cultural Revolution.
"Oh, so many people died in that war!" Mr. Deng said in a long interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci.
If the present Dengist Chinese leadership negates Chairman Mao's achievements , it runs the danger of negating the Communist Party itself. It does violence to the feelings of millions of people like the rural party secretary who was perfectly willing to criticize erroneous policies of the past but who felt it was wrong to drag Chairman Mao's name into the mud because of them.
But when it puts the four on trial, even a closed trial, it will have the greatest difficulty keeping what Mr. Deng calls the "political errors" of Mao separate from what he calls the "crimes" of the "gang."
It is reliably reported that as a kind of dry run for the trial, the "gang of four" were brought to party headquarters in Chungnanhai adjoining the Forbidden City to be confronted by a small select group of high party cadres headed by Politburo member Peng Zhen and Secretariat member Peng Chong.
For two days, on every question brought up by Messrs. Peng and Peng, Madame Mao and her henchmen replied that they had acted on the direct instructions of Chairman Mao. Only Yao Wenyuan, the weakest of the four, is reported to have shown any signs of repentance or regret.The others, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen, are reported to have backed Madame Mao fully in her contention that she was in the right and her interrogators in the wrong.
Madame Mao is said to have shown a keen memory, remembering dates and details of conversations with unnerving accuracy. The leadership, therefore, can be under no illusions that it can avoid confronting the issue of Chairman Mao's own responsibility once it brings the four to trial. At the same time, while the rural party secretary may represent millions of ordinary people attached to the memory of Mao, there are also thousands of cadres who feel otherwise.
These cadres are people of technical and professional competence essential to the success of China's ambitious modernization program. Some lost their jobs as early as the antirightist campaign of 1957, also launched by Mao.
They cannot be expected to work with enthusiasm for the modernization program , said one of them, unless they can be 100 percent certain that the arbitrary and capricious decisions of one man or of a small group can never again prevail over rational consensual decision making.
The only certain way to do this is to bring all the mistakes of the past into the light, first and foremost those committed by Mao, no matter how painful such a process may be to leaders still alive who may have either enthusiastically or resigned gone along with these mistakes.
China's leaders therefore face wrenching decisions. Their hesitation is understandable. But step by step they are testing their way forward. The further they go, the less possible retreat becomes.