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Despite his 'mistakes,' Mao makes a comeback in China's media

For the first time in at least five years, Mao Tse-tung is back on the cover of China Reconstructs, a glossy color magazine published in seven languages and distributed throughout the world from Peking.

It has been a long holiday for the late Chinese leader who, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, set the record when 20 out of 24 consecutive covers of China Pictorial magazine featured his broad face in brilliant color.

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This month's cover is graced with a more informal photograph of the young Mao , wearing a padded coat and leaning back on his chair - long before ''grave mistakes'' of the chairman were publicized by his successors.

The revival of Mao as acceptable cover material of China's international propaganda magazines coincides with a recent flourish of material on the late chairman in the national Chinese press - the most since he was given official clearance by the party in 1981 as a ''great revolutionary'' despite his ''mistakes.''

Among the reports has been coverage of the preparations for a giant Mao Fest to celebrate what would have been the chairman's 90th birthday on Dec. 26.

Several symposiums on Mao's sayings and writings have been held during the year as part of the birthday celebrations. A national meeting attended by some 500 Communist Party theoreticians last month came to the conclusion that the ''correctness of Mao's policies had been proven by his mistakes.''

An estimated 50 books are being published on Mao's work, a glossy set of official stamps has been issued, and a color film documentary on the ''glorious deeds'' of the late party chairman is already being advertised with giant billboards on Peking's main street.

Mao's home in Hunan Province has been reopened and China's ruling body, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, has approved the supposedly significant change in title from ''Mao Tse-tung's old home'' to ''Mao Tse-tung's former residence.''

The activities will culminate on the actual day of Mao's birth. Peking is expected to erupt into ''singing, dancing, and general happiness,'' in what is being referred to as the ''East is Red'' celebrations.

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Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976. The party has delcared that it was in the decade before this that the chairman made his most serious mistakes.

In 1981, a resolution on ''certain questions in the party since the founding of the People's Republic of China,'' declared that while Mao should be recognized as a great Marxist, proletarian revolutionary, strategist, and theoritican, he still committed ''grave mistakes.''

The decision not to describe these mistakes as ''crimes'' has enabled the present regime to condemn the actions of the man, in particular the persecutions and extreme policies of the Cultural Revolution, while nimbly leaving the image of the founder and chairman of the People's Republic intact.

But the recent concentration of positive propaganda about Mao has raised some fears, particularly among China's intellectuals, who are already under pressure from the current antiright campaign.

Two months ago, as plans for the Mao Fest first surfaced, it did appear that some of the die-hard leftists of China's leadership had rallied and were attempting to use Mao's birthday to revive his status and in doing so strengthen the opposition to the open-door foreign policy and economic reforms of senior leader Deng Xiaoping.

But in the past fortnight, just as Deng's rectification of leftist party members has finally gotten under way, so the wily Mr. Deng appears to have been able to manipulate the pro-Mao propaganda to serve his own ends by adding Mao's apparent imprimatur to Deng's policies.

The significance of the birthday celebrations were effectively diminished when similar arrangements on a slightly smaller scale were hastily arranged to commemorate the 85th birthday of China's former president, the late Liu Shaoqi.

This week's cover of the Red Flag, the party's theoretical journal, has a picture of Mao - listening intently to a short, overcoated comrade . . . Deng Xiaoping. Inside, there is an article putting Mao's weight to Deng's call for party members to rectify their style.

While the title of Mao's birthplace may have been upgraded, it was Deng's calligraphy above the entrance. And no secret has been made of the fact that the exhibition housed there has been signficantly altered to coincide with the official version of Mao's life. ''After relevant alterations of the exhibition hall, it has . . . cleared away the mistakes of the left and influences of the right,'' the Hunan provincial radio reported last month.

At the same time, the de-mything of Mao that began in the late 1970s has continued unofficially on a low-key level. Moves are afoot to convert his mausoleum into a museum commemorating China's collective leadership since 1949.

The spotlight on the last giant portrait of Mao in Peking's Forbidden City has been turned off.

When questioned about this by foreign journalists, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated simply, ''Your observation is incorrect.'' But the portrait remains in darkness.

As a foreign observer said recently, ''They probably won't turn the lights back on until they've touched it up so it looks just a little bit more like Deng Xiaoping.''

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