Earlier this year, Liu Zhonghou was in the middle of giving a zoology lesson when the door to her classroom swung open. The young Sichuan teacher found herself under attack from seven people wielding whips, knives, and sticks.
After bludgeoning her unconscious, her assailants fled. Despite the seriousness of the attack, Mrs. Liu's story was ignored by the police because the local judicial official had made it clear that he was not interested in the ''problems'' of intellectuals. (The Chinese definition of an intellectual is vague, but the term generally applies to people who labor with their minds rather than their hands. At a minimum, anyone with education beyond secondary school can be classified as an intellectual.)
The case finally came to national attention when the United Front, an organization formed to protect intellectuals in China, wrote to the Guangming Daily, the newspaper of the Peking intelligentsia. Under pressure, the local authorities eventually prosecuted one of the seven attackers.
The incident is the latest indication that China's lengthy campaign to rehabilitate intellectuals still faces widespread opposition from the conservative bureaucracy and its ''leftist'' officials.
Many of China's 8 million intellectuals have been persecuted in repeated political campaigns since the ''antirightist'' movement of the late 1950s. The latest efforts to restore the credibility of intellectuals in China began soon after the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, in which many intellectuals died.
China's paramount leader, Deng Xiao-ping, in a speech he gave in 1977 (published for the first time this month in the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping) , criticized the emphasis placed on an intellectual's political activities. ''We should not make excessive political demands on these people (intellec-tuals), so long as they are patriotic, favor socialism, and accept the party leadership,'' Mr. Deng said.
But despite the constant pro-intellectual articles in the official press and repeated warnings from Peking, many cadres appear to be ignoring the government's efforts to improve the status and living conditions of China's doctors, writers, scientists, and artists.
According to a foreign scientist who was recently in Peking, many Chinese scientists say their activities are still strictly controlled by the bureaucracy. ''Several scientists told me that they are only able to do what the administrators say they can do, which in many cases is seriously affecting their ability to conduct research,'' the doctor said, asking not to be named.
In May, a Shanghai scientist defected to Taiwan after attending a convention in Vancouver, British Columbia even though he was offered various incentives to return.
''Before I left for the conference in Canada, a Communist Party official at Chiaotung University told me I would be promoted to a professor in September with a pay raise and admission to the Communist Party,'' Ko Cheng-ming said on arrival in Taiwan.
According to the Taiwanese press, Mr. Ko said he left China because he ''could not live under communism,'' which he described as ''tyranny.'' Ko was the sixth Chinese scientist to defect to Taiwan in the past three years.
It is estimated that only half of China's officials or cadres completed senior middle school or high school. Most of the others won their posts through their dedication in pre-liberation fighting or through family connections. The result: widespread disdain for intellectuals, described by Peking's English- language newspaper, the China Daily, as the conviction that ''the lower the level of education, the greater the revolutionary zeal.''
A recent commentary in the official newspaper of the Communist Party, the People's Daily, revealed the strong opposition to intellectuals becoming members of the Communist Party. The commentary said that intellectuals who try to join the party are told by ''leftist'' cadres that they have ''come to the wrong room.''
''The party's policy on admitting intellectuals is far from being realized; the reality is that many intellectuals are applying for admission into the party and they are being refused. Under the sway of 'leftism' some party members even fear that more intellectuals in the party will change its nature. They stubbornly hold to the view that intellectuals are working hard only for the fame and profit and they are applying for admission into the party out of an ulterior motive.''
The need to rehabilitate China's intellectuals has taken on added importance in light of the nation's drive for economic modernization, as Peking attempts to replace older, conservative cadres with younger and better-qualified people.
Peking has made it clear that in a nation in which more than a quarter of its billion-plus population is illiterate, the goal of a per capita income of $1,000 by the year 2000 cannot be achieved without the cooperation of all of China's 8 million scientific and technical experts.
''For years, science and expertise have not been adequately appreciated. And now our need for expertise is more urgent than the need for money,'' the People's Daily said recently.