Of all the ghosts that have haunted the history of Chinese communism and its most recent troubles, none is more curious than an 82-year-old apparition named Luo Zhang-long, who this week suddenly came back to life.
A party founder purged in disgrace in 1931, Luo was supposed to have died in 1949. Yet he appeared Tuesday with other phantoms like Mao Tse-tung's second wife on a list of new members in an official united front group.
Amelia Earhart and Judge Crater would have created no less a stir if they were to turn up on the guest list for a White House banquet.
The event appeared to be the work of a minor master of surprises, party vice chairman Deng Xiaoping. Along with other top officials in their 70s and 80s, he is letting a few walking ghosts help prepare the way for his own passing.
Recent events have given Deng some cause to worry that it may not be as easy to sooth old hurts as he had hoped. Today's edition of the Workers Daily, a Peking publication, suggested that senior officials are again being attacked as "capitalist roaders," a favorite slogan of the youthful Red Guards who pushed Deng and many of his colleagues into temporary retirement a decade ago.
At 74, Deng should appreciate that he has only a few years to stifle such sentiments and ensure a lasting respect for experience, expertise and plain talk at the highest levels of the party. In the view of Deng and his colleagues, this would keep their memories alive and guarantee China's position as a world power in the 21st century.
That Deng should seek help from ancient fossils like Luo, perhaps the last true founder of the Communist Party left alive in China, shows his utter determination to rewrite history. In this way he can stealthily diminish the role of the late chairman Mao, whose legend as an advocate of regular upheavel is so dangerous to the kind of China Deng wants to leave behind.
Luo was a scholar and labor organizer, one of the few Chinese leaders able to read Marx in the original German. He helped start the party in 1921, then fell afoul of one of a series of confused doctrinal and personal disputes a decade later. Mao denounced him as a "rightist opportunist."
Even after Mao's death in 1976, Luo was still officially listed as the villian of one of the party's 11 great ideological struggles.
One biographer suggested that Luo died in a Ho Chi Minh prison in Vietnam in 1949, to the end an embittered Trotskyite. But he turned up on Tuesday's list as a "professor at the Hubei College of Finance and Economics." His position on the list suggests that his good name, but not his party membership, has been restored.
Named along with Luo on the list of political consultative conference members were several other victims of earlier purges, symbolizing Deng's insistence that contrary views and experience must have their place in party affairs. They included Mao's second wife, He Zizhen (Ho Tzu-chen), who disappeared from sight after their divorce in 1937, and Ding Ling, a well known female writer penalized for her insistence on artistic and, it is rumored, sexual freedom.
Inclusion of Wang Guangmei symbolized the steady progress toward restoration of the reputation of her husband, the late president and foe of Mao, Liu Shao-chi. Several other victims of Red Guard attacks in the 1960s, some rehabilitated for the first time, also appeared.
"Deng is apparently determined to overturn nearly all of Mao's old verdicts that removed some of the most experienced men in the government," one analyst said.
It is hard to tell how much trouble Deng is having restoring old reputations and putting into action such pragmatic policies as free markets for peasants. He controls most of the media, so the strength of his opposition is difficult to assess.
But clearly at stake at this moment in China, as in any good American political campaign, is Deng's momentum. He must build confidence that his victory is inevitable to win over doubters in the party.
He has only a little time to turn younger men, like party chairman Hua Guofeng, into true believers in a steady, pragmatic approach and rejection of Maoist political rhetoric before he, and even old Luo Zhanglong, leave the scene.