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Mao critics now taking careful aim at late, 'beloved premier' Chou

One by one the late chairman Mao Tsetung's close associates are being openly criticized in China. Now the wrath of his antagonists has fallen on none other than former Premier Chou En-lai.

Middle-level party cadres and academics in China have begun criticizing Chou, who until last year was fervently admired as "our beloved premier."

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Reports from Chinese cities as far apart as Canton, Shanghai, Nanjing, Peking , and Chengdu have it that the criticism of Chou is widespread among intellectuals, many of whom were victimized during the Cultural Revolution. The charges against Chou are threefold:

* His proximity to Mao and his unflinching obedience to Mao's line. All through his political career, except for a brief disagreement in the 1930s, Chou stuck with Mao and did his bidding.

Despite several upheavals and purges that saw many of Mao's heirs disgraced, Chou remained the only top-level survivor and rse to be No. 2 in the 1970s. With this history, it would be difficult to denounce Mao and exonerate Chou.

* Chou's cooperation with the "gang of four." In the 1970s, the radical quartet became prominent mainly at Mao's behest because they were fervent Maoists. Through Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, they had access to the chairman, and became conveyors of his orders, especially after 1974 as Mao became incapacitated. Access to Mao, the source of ultimate authorty, had to be shared by Chou with the "gang of four." As the conciliator par excellence, Chou must have gone along with the radicals, through he often disagreed with them.

* His role in the purge of Liu Shaoqi at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Given China's current political climate, this is the most important of the three charges. The allegation being made is that Chou acted as Mao's chief hatchet man in the downfall of Liu and his close adherents.

Although Chou protected many lesser Liuists during the Cultural Revolution from the wrath of the radicals and the rampaging Red Guards, as the head of the government he was at the forefront of denouncing Liu in his public pronouncements. None of the criticism of Chou, however, is thought likely to surface in the Chinese media for some time.

Diplomatic sources feel the Chinese will complete the process of post-Mao succession in the leadership first. Then will come the trial of the "gang of four" and posthumous trial of Lin Piao.

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This will be followed by the trials of scores of radicals in the provinces. Only then will attention be turned to Mao and Chou, whose mistakes will be openly aired, although it is not likely they will be personally villified.