Passengers arriving at the busy Shanghai airport immediately notice a larger-than-life mural of the late Mao Tse-tung and his successor, Hua Guofeng, the new Chinese party chairman and prime minister.

The painting is a cue to the political anatomy of post-Mao China, for it is a special example of how the present regime has tried to show that it has the blessing of the once-deified Mao and is carrying on his "true" legacy, despite Mao's identification with the discredited "Gang of Four," headed by Chiang Ching, his fourth wife.

During the last two years, copies of the mural have appeared as enormous wall posters all over the country. The two leaders are depicted sitting side by side; a benign Mao, looking indulgently at the younger official, his left hand patting Hua's right one, is handing him a note that purportedly reads, "With you in command, my heart is at ease." If that's not the actual text, nobody is challenging it.

The cult of Stalin was ended abruptly by Nikita Khrushchev with one smashing iconoclastic tirade. The Chinese are more patient and subtle. De-Maoization is gradual, with pictures playing a significant role. In every classroom, from the universities to the kindergartens, equal-size head portraits of Mao and Hua are hung side by side. It is the same elsewhere, including factories and farm communes.

The message is that Mao is still to be respected but not exclusively; that Hua is to be admired too, but not singularly as a new icon. The monolith in the People's Republic today is "The Party," not an individual.

In authoritarian societies, succession is always a profoundly disturbing problem. For many Chinese, says the brilliant Asia scholar, Robert Oxnam, Hua Guofeng's "rise to power must seem like a replay of successful 'dark horse' emperors in traditional history -- complete with a battle over Mao's will, a fight over Mao's body, a palace coup by Mao's bodyguard, a purge of Mao's widow and her faction, and a public campaign for legitimacy by the Hua leadership."

The arrest and vilification of the "Gang of Four" after Mao's death, however, still left the question of what to do about Mao's own reputation. Some wanted to include Mao and call it the "Gang of Five" because of the late chairman's support of the Gang's "Cultural Revolution," which in the eyes of the new regime, almost wrecked China, as indeed it almost did.

As of today, Mao seems safe from total discreditation, as the new leadership consolidates its power and gains in confidence. Only a couple of years ago, Hua was looked upon as a transitional figurehead, but he is now being referred to as "Hua the Wise."

Despite Mao's xenophobia and opposition, in his senile years, to modernization, Hua and Deng Xiaoping, the vice chairman and senior vice premier, are swiftly carrying forward industrial revolution, while adhering to the spirit of socialism.

Deng could probably have been No. 1 himself, but he was mindful of approaching his 77th year. One reason Hua's prestige is increasing is that, at 58, he is 15 to 20 years younger than the other principal figures of the Politburo and the associated hierarchy.

The Chinese leaders are constantly asked by visitors about the fate of the Gang of Four. Visitors are just as constantly assured that the Gang will be given trials, but nothing is forthcoming as to when, where and how.

Few here believe they will be executed, but for their own sakes it is probably just as well they were not tried when the public campaign against them was at its most virulent a year or two ago. It would be a special irony if the Gang were saved by the legal safeguards they tried so hard to destroy when they were in power, but which, to some degree, have been restored by the present regime.

It may be of some significance that the government allowed crowds to gather in the squares of Peking last November to demand open and fair trials of the Gang that would be televised to the whole country. Americans traditionally hold strong views concerning the law and the way in which it should operate; but, as Victor Li, a specialist on Chinese legal history points out, the quantity of written material in China that could be labeled law in the Western sense would hardly fill a small bookcase.

There are very few formal trials and, as Li notes, there are virtually no lawyers and, hence no defense counsel. So, no matter how the prosecution of the Gang of Four is finally handled, the case will probably inspire new questions about China's criminal process, possibly inside as well as outside the coutry.