In August 1966, during China's reactionary Cultural Revolution, a mob of Red Guards sacked the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Canton. Now the bells of the cathedral, stilled for 13 years, are ringing again. As part of undoing the depredations of the Gang of Four, China's new leaders "rehabilitated" the priests, returned the confiscated assets of the church and paved the way for the recent reopening of the old cathedral.

Even as the bells were pealing in Canton, however, the post-Mao government, headed by Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping, was being accused by dissidents in Peking of inhibiting free speech and being as repressive as the "Gang" it liquidated.

So much foreign attention is being focused on Peking's "Democracy Wall" that it is rapidly becoming as famous as the Berlin Wall. For over a year, the 200-yard wall in the center of Peking has been plastered with posters by dissidents and petitioners criticizing China's leaders and demanding more freedoms.

The government has reacted by restricting the posters, which are guaranteed by the 1978 constitution, to Yuetan Park, several miles west of the downtown area. Contents of the posters are not to be screened, but the authors will be held responsible for making "false charges."

All this follows a government crackdown on political dissenters that culminated in the now celebrated conviction in October of Wei Jingseng on charges of being a counterrevolutionary and passing military secrets to foreigners. Wei's case has attracted wide western sympathy, but few other Chinese dissidents would go so far as to agree with his charge that there have been no changes for the better since the ouster of the Gang of Four.

In November alone, there were numerous developments all over the country indicating government approval, or at least acceptance, of a growing spirit of independent action and thought. Non-communists, for instance, have just won 130 to the 350 seats in Peking's East District People's Congress, following the first free election in China in 25 years.

Both communists and non-communists were chosen by the same process, giving the 373,497 registered voters in 115 electoral wards a sense of participation rare in China. Moreover, this election is to be the model for some 2,000 other Chinese city districts and counties that, under a new reform law, will also elect their own congresses in early January.

Another encouraging November event was the first national writers' conference in 20 years, which pledged to revive the old slogan "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom." That's a bold declaration, indeed, considering what happened to the critics who took the slogan seriously in 1957.

Just after publication of the writers' manifesto, thirty young avant-garde painters, who had taken to the streets in October to claim the right to exhibit their works, finally prevailed over the bureaucracy: their art show was allowed to open in the capital's Peio Hai Hall. It included every style of painting and sculpture, even the most futuristic and ideological. Not even nudes -- seldom seen in China -- were banned.

One of the Hua regime's greatest contributions has been restoring the nation's educational establishment, which was systematically undermined by the Gang of Four. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, universities were forced to abandon examinations and to accept poorly trained and academically unqualified students simply on the basis of political recommendations from factories, communes and military units.

The Hua leadership is making a gigantic effort to put mass education back on a democratic merit system by restoring exams, reinstating qualified teachers and encouraging academic freedom. The national student body -- 210 million -- almost equals the population of the United States.

An equally massive reform is the government's ongoing effort to promote more local autonomy at the farm commune level. The communes are mostly a collection of villages that, since the 1949 communist revolution, pool their land and sell their products to the state, with the government hitherto controlling the operation.

Post-Mao policy, however, is for the lowest unit in the commune, the village or "production team," to call the shots on planting, marketing and cultivating privately owned plots. Incidentally, the villages are, like the cities, preparing for their first elections next month.

After being stifled for a decade, when only "correct" ideological plays were tolerated, the Chinese theater is alive again, with fresh and original scripts now getting a hearing. Britain's Old Vic has just completed a tour of the country. When a member of the audience was asked why Shakespeare is so popular in China, he said, "His spirit is universal, his soul speaks to us all."