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Demystifying Mao

The world stood transfixed when the details of Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956 denouncing Joseph Stalin came out.Here, at long last, was the defrocking of the most absolute and despotic leader of modern times. The castigation of Stalin's ruthless crimes and megalomania finally brought to an end a reign of terror in the USSR and laid the ground for the still totalitarian but certainly more humane leadership and policies that were ultimately to follow.

A similar demystification of the other dominant communist political figure of our times has now officially taken place in China. It promises to be no less significant for the People's Republic and the world at large. In a massive 35, 000-word appraisal of 32 years of Maoist rule, the Chinese Communist Party in effect has demoted Mao tse-tung from his once preeminent position of high priest of the revolution to an important but fallible national leader. Mao's contributions are still denounced him the way Stalin was denounced would have been to call in question the legitimacy of the communist revolution in China and to incite the wrath of many Chinese, for whom Mao was something of a demigod. But the indictment of his errors is sweeping: the Great Leap Forward, the forced communization of rural China, and the Cultural Revolution which convulsed the land for so many years. Mao, said the party resolution, "confused right and wrong and the people with the enemy."

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What does this mean in practical terms for the People's Republic? It would be premature to conclude that Maoist influences will depart the Chinese scene any more than Stalinist thinking has been uprooted in Soviet society. Most observers in fact see a continuing debate over the evaluation of Mao and his legacy; the political struggle is not entirely over.

But the way is now cleared for the more pragmatic and liberalizing course set by Deng Xiaoping, China, if it is to get on with the business of entering the modern age, desperately needs to be free of the turbulent "class struggle" and "continuing revolution" which were articles of Maoist faith. Fortunately, these have been criticized, and Deng and his associates now can continue the laborious task or rebuilding China's institutions and vitalizing its economy. That this dramatic turn has been accomplished peacefully is an extraordinary achievements in itself.

To be sure, the dethroning of Mao should be kept in perspective. It is possible to applaud every positive step away from the tyranny and irrationality of the past without closing one's eyes to the nature of the communist authoritarianism that persists. Dengism -- with its accent on incentives, consumerism, and practical approaches -- still means limits on freedom that would be intolerable in any Western nation. But it can be counted one of the heartening trends in the world that China is putting behind it the Maoist madness of the past and letting the fres h winds of reform blow.

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