Chinese leaders promise less censorship for artists, writers. THE PARTY AND THE ARTS

China's communist leadership pledged yesterday to ease its strict censorship of the arts, but reminded a large gathering of Chinese writers and artists that they must ``serve the people and socialism.'' In an important policy address, Communist Party Politburo member Hu Qili told 1,500 delegates to a rare national literary and arts conference that the party will limit its meddling with individual works of art.

However, in a speech apparently designed to appease both conservative and reformist factions, Mr. Hu underscored the party's ideological restrictions on literature and art - namely prohibitions on criticism of the Communist Party, socialism, and ``Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought.''

``The party must uphold overall principles, but it should lessen its interference and intervention with specific artistic works,'' Hu said.

The Chinese public and artists themselves - not party leaders - should be the main critics, said Hu, the party's chief spokesman on cultural and ideological matters.

``As readers and spectators, [party] leaders may express personal opinions on works of literature and art, but these opinions shouldn't become orders or regulations,'' Hu said.

Western diplomats characterized Peking's promise to refrain from dictating to cultural circles as a positive sign, but said such promises have failed in the past to prevent campaigns against unorthodox art.

``It's a very timid beginning, and the problem is that there's no guarantee it will last,'' a Western European diplomat said.

In an effort to persuade delegates that the totalitarian party is departing from its tradition of heavy-handed censorship, Hu stressed that Peking would ``avoid launching political campaigns'' as a way of dealing with controversy in academic and artistic fields.

Chinese artists, including many conference delegates, suffered greatly during Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when eight ``revolutionary operas'' were the only productions allowed.

More recently, the party's late 1983 campaign against ``spiritual pollution'' and last year's aborted crackdown on ``bourgeois liberalization'' have stifledcultural life.

Ideological discord within the party contributed to a long delay in convening this week's conference, which was originally scheduled for 1985. Such delays are not unusual.

Due to past political campaigns, the arts and literature federation has only met four other times since its founding on the eve of the communist revolution in 1949. The last conference was held in 1979.

Recent months have seen the party show greater tolerance for controversial works.

For example, the party permitted two nationwide airings of the popular television series River Elegy, which launched a sweeping attack on China's cultural heritage while praising Western tradition.

Harsh criticism from a prominent party conservative failed to halt the second airing.

``The atmosphere today is quite different,'' said a Western diplomat.

``What happened to River Elegy is significant. It would have been banned a few years ago,'' he said.

In his speech, Hu stressed the need to promote cultural diversity. China should discard the ``dross'' of its own culture while absorbing ``useful'' foreign influences.

He added, however, that China should ``reject evil and decadent things'' from abroad.

Hu also called for permitting a wider range of artistic criticism.

``All sorts of different opinions and views can be published,'' he said.

``Even if there isn't agreement on some opinions or viewpoints, never mind ... We must allow criticism and counter criticism.''

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