Even in death, Mao Tse-tung still draws a crowd in Tienanmen Square. Thousands file into his huge memorial hall and have a five-second look at his pasty, deeply lined features, preserved under glass.
A just-ended, mysterious four-month closing of the hall, and three years of rapid change in China since his death, have not quenched the Chinese fascination with this man. This has killed hopes of a solution to an unending problem for China's new government, trying to rid itself of the painful remnants of Mao's wilder social schemes.
After months of alternately scolding and embracing Mao's ghost, his less charismatic successors have apparently decided to live with it.
Communist Party propagandists are trying to blot out memories of Mao in his last years, hitting out at all elites, including party veterans, like themselves, and insisting on a nation run by spiritual fervor, not self-interest. China's new leaders want to remember the Mao of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, cautious, pragmatic, not so hurried by knowledge of approaching death, approving policies not on ideological grounds but because they worked.
Whatever Mao might himself have wanted for the China that followed his death-and his ironic turn of mind refused to make this clear-his surviving writings provide fuel for all possible factions of the new Communist leadership. This leaves the style of his memory a nagging source of debate and an extremely important factor in China's future.
Young Chinese couples on their wedding day still turn to the portrait of Mao on the wall and bow. A picture of Mao's handpicked successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng, is sometimes there too, but there are no similar posters in circulation showing the leader of the somewhat anti-Maoist group now in control here-Deng Xiaoping.
A walk into the "Chairman Mao Memorial Hall," as inscribed over the door in Hua's handwriting, goes quickly, without a sound. The building is big and square with graceful pillars. Visitors enter four abreast, then go left or right, two abreast, to walk around a huge painted screen with a statue of Mao in front of it.
Air conditioning chills the red carpeted room where the bier stands, surrounded by apparently plastic flowers (no one dares touch them). Mao's body lies face up, dressed in a grey suit of the style that took his name. He is completely wrapped in a bright red Chinese flag below the chest. The skin seems old but lifelike, but there is little time to stare. No one speaks or stops moving.
Outside again, Westerners will occasionally joke about the "peasant under glass," but the Chinese do not laugh or smile. They have seen the man who united them, who made his name synonymous with China and with some of mankind's great social experiments. Even if they do not love him, they are proud of him.
This respect and fascination survives despite all the painful memories in China today of Mao's destructive impulses.The wallposter walls are full of appeals by unlucky officials who lost homes, jobs and self-respect in one of the great Mao purges and have yet to get them back.
Western scientists visiting here find a young generation of technological illiterates, forced for years to plant rice and forsake the book learning Mao was so suspicious of.
When Mao died in September 1976, and his entourage was quickly removed from power by a group of veteran officials, the official press began gently to suggest that he may not have been right all the time, and that new answers had to be found to China's new problems. When wallposter attacks on Mao became very heated last year, however, Deng cooled them down out of fear for the legitimacy of a Communist regime Mao created.
The press picked up the anti-Mao theme again, always obliquely. The Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, Mao's last great experiment, was dismissed as unnecessary in an article in March.
On Dec. 24, two days before what would have been Mao's 85th birthday, the memorial hall was closed. The Chinese said it needed unspecified repairs, a believable story given the record time in which the building was constructed. But a feeling remained that Chinese leaders were also uncertain that they wanted to continue to celebrate him like this.
The press nibbled at his image during what many said was an intense debate about Mao at the highest levels of the party. But the works "under the banner of Mao Tse-tung thought," were still attached to party statements.
A dissident poster charging that the new leadership had "never recognized his errors" and was "protecting his image" was allowed to stay up untouched in late April, a sign of some leadership support for an anti-Mao stand. But the word passed that a compromise had been agreed on to preserve Mao's legend, while trying to alter his policies.
It is unclear whether this will help Maoist reforms such as the creation of a technical elite through college entrance exams and factory bonuses. The press is praising other deceased party veterans such as Chou En-lai, to balance off the potent Mao image.
Young people who cannot remember any other leader of China before Mao filled memorial hall today, but they did not say much. CAPTION: Picture, Chinese leaders, including party Chairman Hua Guofeng, left, and Deng Xiaoping, second from left, paid respects during visit to Mao's mausoleum in Peking in 1977. New China Agency via-AP