''Learn anew.'' Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang put forward this slogan for party and government leaders before an audience of 10,000 in Peking's Great Hall of the People.
The unwieldy task of modernizing China requires the enthusiastic participation of intellectuals. And in his speech March 13 commemorating the centenary of Karl Marx's death, Mr. Hu made a strong plea that intellectuals be regarded as ''part of the working class''' and not as an ''alien force.'' As Hu spoke, his mentor Deng Xiaoping sat impassively beside him on the rostrum, while his colleague Premier Zhao Ziyang chaired the meeting.
These are the leaders who have set themselves, and the billion people of China, the task of quadrupling industrial and agricultural output by modernizing agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense by the year 2000.
''Scientific socialism'' is the framework they have chosen. They claim to be the direct heirs of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Mao Tse-tung.
The various economic reforms they have introduced, the use of incentives, the reorganization of communes, the revival of profit as an engine of economic growth, the encouragement of foreign investment and of joint ventures are all done in the name of socialism and within the framework of the supreme guiding role of the Communist Party.
But within this framework, the Chinese leadership is practicing its own version of communism with a human face. The Maoist personality cult is officially condemned, but local versions crop up from place to place.
On the same day that Hu spoke, the Capital Theatre in Peking premiered a new play by Bai Hua, the controversial author of the banned film ''Bitter Love'' (also known as ''Unrequited Love''). Before a full house the play unfolded the story of a tyrant of 2,000 years ago.
King Goujian of Yueh is defeated by the neighboring king of Wu. He works hard to build up his kingdom once more, sitting on firewood and licking gall to remind him daily of his firm purpose. Eventually he defeats Wu. Then he becomes a tyrant indulging in wine and women, jealous of worthy and capable people. So he goes to his eventual doom.
It does not take a great flight of imagination to think of Mao Tse-tung, founder of the People's Republic, whom Hu credits with ''integrating the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete realities in China'' but who, ''deviating or departing from this correct road in the evening of his life'' went ''astray'' and made ''distressing mistakes.''
As late as August of last year, the Army newspaper Jiefang Junbao was making a somewhat camouflaged but unmistakable attack on the more liberal policies that allowed Bai Hua to film ''Bitter Love'' in the first place.
At the 12th Communist Party congress, which convened in September, the Deng-Hu-Zhao ideological line triumphed and the anti-Deng political commissar of the Army, Wei Guoqing, was replaced by Yu Qiuli.
Political dissidence is still rigorously stamped on in China. But those who accept the basic socialist framework of the state, as does Bai Hua, though criticized, have been free to continue their literary activity.
Intellectuals in the fields of science and technology essential to the modernization program cannot really flourish except in an atmosphere that allows some degree of questioning established theories and dogmas, some willingness to explore paths hitherto untrod.
In this sense Hu's speech upholding intellectuals and the staging of Bai Hua's new play are not unrelated. China is a vast country, with many surviving local practitioners of the personality cult, many cadres still tainted by the Maoist dictum that intellectuals constitute the ''stinking ninth category'' (that is, worse than landlords, counterrevolutionaries, and so forth).
As Mr. Hu said in his speech, some people are still saying that ''while No. 1 [i.e. workers] has been shunted aside, No. 9 [intellectuals] is soaring to the skies.''
''It is not right to describe workers as No. 1 and intellectuals as No. 9,'' says Hu.
Above all, Hu calls on party cadres themselves at all levels to acquire professional and scientific skills: ''Otherwise their leadership will be nothing more than armchair politics, pointless and fruitless effort, or arbitrary direction. Our modernization program would get nowhere if we were to rely on such leadership.''