"Mao used to thank John Foster Dulles" for being a negative example, says Ross Terrill, author of a recently published biography of the late Chinese leader. "He [Dulles] alerted the Chinese people to a sharper understanding of imperialists.

"I have to thank Dulles, too. He had the view that China was responsible for all the evil in Asia. He really helped turn my attention toward China."

Like many Australian students of his generation, Terrill was intrigued with the Third World. But the Dulles rhetoric frightened him from visiting China -- for a while, anyway.

"I remember I had a friend at school," he recalls, "and one day I took her a vase for her birthday. Her father turned it up and saw that it was made in China. He hurled it to the floor. He had fought in World War II and didn't like the communists.

"China was like forbidden fruit for many of us. It was daunting to go there. India was the heroic Third World country to us. I went there and got turned off by the moralism of the Indian approach. So I bounced off India to the terrible alternative."

Terrill dropped out of school and wandered around Eastern Europe looking for a Chinese ambassador who would give him a visa. He made stops in Belgrade, Budapest, Prague and Moscow. Finally, he got the visa in Warsaw.

He went in through Siberia. Arriving in Peking, he stepped right into a big anti-Lyndon Johnson rally in protest of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. b

"I didn't know a word of Chinese," he says. "I was in China three weeks.

After that trip I decided to go to graduate school and study Chinese. There I was in a country that was not only important but the heart of Asia, and I was unable to communicate directly with anyone.

"I also liked it. It's a beautiful country. It was the most different place I'd ever seen."

Since then Terrill, 42, author of the highly regarded "800,000,000: The Real China," has written four books and numerous articles on China.He recently returned from his seventh trip to China, a four-week stay as one of seven scholars lecturing on Mao for the Academy of Social Sciences at the Peoples' University.

"A subject once taboo," says Terrill in an accent still showing Australian traces, "Mao is now being chewed over. He's going through a political reassessment. And there's a practical problem. If Mao was unbalanced for 20 years, can the system he established be any good?"

Mao, he adds, may be criticized in China in six months. But the criticism, says Terrill, will probably be indirect, coming perhaps through his own biography scheduled to be translated into Chinese and sold in Hong Kong.

"There's a cultural reason for this," explains Terrill. "The Chinese like to speak indirectly. They could have me say something about him."

There are already changes, reports the author. In the provinces Mao is still called Chairman, but in Peking he is called Comrade Mao. For many, Terrill says, to criticize Mao is to criticize one's father.

(Recently portraits of Mao were removed from Tian An Men Square in Peking because they lacked "political solemnity.")

Terrill says the recent resignation of Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng and the appointment of Zhao Ziyang signals a further deemphasis of Mao.

"It's a consolidation of the rightwing line," he explains. "It is a further clipping of the wings of Hua, Mao's chosen boy. The revolution is over, to sum it up in one sentence. The new economics is replacing the old politics. The new word is economics. The watchwords are: competition, accountability and initiative."

At age 61, Zhao is younger than leaders like 76-year-old Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, and despite a move toward younger leadership, Terrill sees a huge wash of cynicism among the young.

"The young think the privilege issue among a billion people is insoluble," he explains. "They see Deng's daughter riding around in a car the Japanese gave Deng, and they become riled."

Terrill hopes to examine cynicism among the young more closely when he visits China in January with an Australian television crew to do a "60 Minutes-type show."

As Mao's visibility declines, the American influence, which the Chinese leader first encouraged with the Nixon administration, stays on the rise, says Terrill.

"Hungarians and Czechs pose as Americans," he explains, "to get faster taxicab service. There are American movies on TV. Things like documentaries on Disneyland or healthy-minded films like "The Sound of Music.'

"People read Time and Newsweek. But they're mostly the elite. America isn't vivd for most Chinese. Some of the elite, government officials and bureaucrats, read internal newspapers like 'Reference News' and 'Reference Material.' They reprint articles from The Washington Post and The New York Times. But they have to be returned to government agencies by the bureaucrats. It's like turning in a confidential report at the State Department."

Terrill first went to China as an Australian. Now he goes as an American. He became a U.S. citizen in 1979.

"I did it because I had no plans to return to Australia on a permanent basis," he says. "Funny thing happens when you change countries. The old ties are not snapped, and you regularize your relationship to the new country. I feel freer to accept and express my love for my land of origin."

Terrill, a former Harvard professor and now a research associate at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, has embraced his new country enthusiastically.

"America is the most dynamic country in the world," he says matter-of-factly. "It's a stimulating place to live and write. In this country problems get tackled. They don't get swept under the rug.

"In England, where I studied and worked for a while, I always had the feeling that I might be transgressing some unspoken law.

"The American political process is crazy. But American society has enormous underlying strength. I want to see American influence in the world grow. It's a benign influence. Though I do see a danger of too much self-criticism."

Terrill says he'd like to see the United States move to the political left to combat the Soviets in the world arena.

"Andy Young showed we can have influence in the Third World," he continues. "Disadvantaged people, like those in China and elsewhere, seeking their place in the sun -- Russia has nothing to offer them. America does."