Influential members of the Chinese leadership, in a series of press articles, have attacked basic policies of the Communist Party and the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung in a throwback to a brief period of officially inspired internal debate two decades ago.
One leading national newspaper, the Kwangming Daily, has ignored official dogma and all but written off the social experiments of Mao's 1960s Cultural Revolution as a complete loss. A former Mao secretary who was purged in the 1960s has called on the government to scrap its economic system in favor of Western-style business contracts with disputes settled by judges rather than party bureaucrats.
And in perhaps the most remarkable, if tentative, suggestion, the official People's Daily has printed a letter from an army soldier calling for free elections of government officials.
Despite what are clearly strong differences of opinion about such matters among party leaders, there is no evidence yet of any serious split in the united front the leadership has imposed on itself to rebuild the country's economy and increase its military strength. But some of the latest Press statements, including a completely new verdict on the 1976 riots that helped put the present party Chairman Hua Kuo-peng in power, could create significant disruption if pursued vigorously by those leaders who favor great change.
The articles attacking Mao's policies and suggesting Western-tinged political and economic experiments appear to be inspired by Vice Chairman Teng Hsiao-ping. Teng was purged two days after the 1976 riots but returned to power after Mao's death. He probably is the member of the leadership most willing to try out ideas that have little to do with Maoism or commumism. So far, however, the freewheeling articles have lacked the authoritative stamp of presentation in an official People's Daily editorial. So the 23-member party Politburo probably has not reached agreement on the matter, and may be having difficulty doing so.
Important parts of the official press already have revealed their open disagreement. The party's leading ideological journal, Red Flag, has yet to endorse heartily Teng's pragnatic slogan, "Seek truth from facts." But the People's Daily, the official party newspaper and the Kwangming Daily, the national newspaper for intellectuals, have made the phrase almost their anthem.
According to a Japanese report, a wall poster has appeared outside the People's Daily office in Peking attacking the editors of Red Flag magazine for failing to cast aside dogma and get in step with the new policy of trying whatever works.
No one has yet dared to attack Mao directly in the official press, although since the chairman's death in September 1976 the newspapers have been gradually more willing to remind people that China's great revolutionary leader often admitted to mistakes. The latest articles reach back to Mao statements from the 1940s and 1950s to contradict Mao policies of the 1960s.
Chinese questioned here, as well as foreign analysis in Hong Kong, do not know quite what to make of the most adventurous suggestions appearing in the official press, such as a letter in the Nov. 7 People's Daily from a soldier named Kao Chen-tung.
"Why cannot the masses choose the officials who will manage them and reflect their interests and demands?" Kao asked.
Leaders of small rural villages in China are elected but only from a short list supplied by the party. Officials at higher levels are all appointed by the party.
Kao wrote: "Somebody said appointed officials can reflect the masses' interests and demands. Theoretically that's right, but it does not always work in practice.
"Elections would give the masses a stronger feeling of being masters. Just think, if the fate of an official was in the hands of the masses he associates with daily could he tyrannize people, seek private gain, resort to deception and ignore law and discipline without misgiving?"
A terse editor's note accompanying the letter said it was being offered "for reference" and that "different opinions" were welcome. Longtime readers of the People's Daily still find the letter highly significant.
"Every country in the world has this dichotomy between control and democracy," said one foreigner, "and this shows it is again a live issue in China."
The cries for democratic reform have not yet reached the fever pitch of the "Let 100 flowers bloom" campaign in 1957, however. At that time the party encouraged intellectuals to speak out and later placed them in labor camps when their words displeased Mao.
The official New China News Agency announced Thursday that the latest of these "bourgeois rightists" from 1957 had been cleared of all charges. It was another sign of the changes here, but most Chinese still remember that liberal policies have been short-lived in the past.
One college-educated Chinese said in a conversation here that democracy what he called the "right to speak out" was being restored. But when asked if that also included the right to choose leaders, he did not reply.
Perhaps the most wide-ranging attack on communist economic policy came in a long Oct. 6 People's Daily article by Hu Chiao-mu, a former Mao secretary who was purged in the 1060s but recently restored to head the new Academy of Social Sciences. Hu recommended that factories and offices do business by contract, rather than reply on plans from above. He said peasant collectives should decide on their own what to grow. This would make the economy more planned than it is now, he concluded, without explanation.
The official encouragement to people like Hu is at least in part designed to speed the rehabilitation of other old leaders who, like Teng Hsiao-ing, suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The English-language Hong Kong edition of the pro-Peking newspaper Ta Kung Pao, whose editors are thought to be close to Teng's line of thinking, highlighted Thursday a statement from Peking that more "obviously high-ranking cadres" should be reappearing soon "no matter which leading cadres" had originally ordered their purge.
The Peking city Communist Party Committee announced Thursday, according to the official news agency, that five leading Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution had been arrested and "brought to justice," a phrase that ecompasses several punishments including the death penalty. The group included Nieh Yuan-tze, a Peking University teaching assistant whose anti-administration poster in May 1966 supposedly launched the Red Guard movement.
The Kwangming daily kept up the attack on the Cultural Revolution, which helped the careers of many Chinese leaders like new Chairman Hua, with a series of articles that failed to include praise of the era's "good" policies, like paramedical health care. The People's Daily on Wednesday issued a cautionary note, however, saying "it is entirely wrong to think that correcting mistakes in the cultural revolution means denying its fruitful results."
The front page of the People's Daily Thursday completely rewrote, however, the history of perhaps the last great bloody incident of the cultural revolution era - the Tienanmen Square riots of April 5, 1976. The rioters had protested premature removal of wreathes honoring the recently deceased premier Chou En-lai. The Politburo quickly labeled their activities counterrevolutionary and had Teng purged for alleged involvement with the demonstration. But on Thursday the newspaper said the rioters' actions had been "completely revolutionary."