The Chinese Foreign Ministry said today that Peking had too many portraits of the late Communist Party chairman Mao Tse-tung, and they are being removed because they "lack political solemnity."

It was the first official comment on the full-scale removal of Mao's portraits and slogans, which began earlier in the week in Tienanmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital.

"In the past, the pictures of the chairman have been on too many public places in China," a spokesman said, "This has harmed the political atmosphere in China."

Mao is coming under increasing fire from top leaders for his part in the Cultural Revolution, which plunged the country into 10 years of political and economic upheaval starting in 1966. Officials now openly describe it as a disaster. A document about the period is to be published before the end of the year.

The leadership is willing to allow Mao to be remembered as the father of modern Communist China, but as something less than the god he was once thought to be and also as the man responsible for many of the country's ills.

The removal of Mao's portrait comes shortly before the country's parliament, the National People's Congress, convenes in the Great Hall this month.

The session, the first in 14 months, is due to remove from the constitution Mao's "Four Greats" -- the rights of citizens to "speak out freely, air their views fully, hold great debates and write big character posters."

This reexamination by Chinese leaders of Mao's role also coincides with preparation for the trial of the disgraced "Gang of Four" radicals led by mao's widow, Jiang Qing, which is expected to take place sometime this fall.