China's former foreign minister, who was purged in 1976 for his alleged friendhip with the widow of the late Communist Party chairman Mao Tse-tung and her fellow members of the radical Gang of Four, apparently will return to public service, according to diplomatic sources.

The rehabilitation of the suave and seasoned diplomat, Qiao Guanhua, would mark the return of the highest ranking official removed from power by the group of pragmatic leaders who have run China since Mao's death in September, 1976.

It would also indicate the willingness of China'a leaders to clear up charges against top political figures arising out of the period after Mao's death as the nation readies itself for the upcoming trial of the Gang of Four members.

Qiao, 71, came under attack in late 1976 for allegedly helping Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and other Gang members plot to take over the Foreign Ministry. Qiao's wife, who was believed to be a close friend of Jiang Qing, also drew attention during the puritanical Cultural Revolution period for preening herself publicly in front of mirrors before banquests at the Great Hall of the People.

Qiao, a ubiquitous figure in Chinese diplomatic circles of the early 1970s who was known for unusually wide-ranging and open discussions with his foreign counterparts, unofficially returned to public life a year ago as an adviser on foreign affairs, diplomatic sources said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have suggested that Qiao has "seen the mistakes" and now awaits formal appointment to a top-level job, the sources said. Among possible positions mentioned are head of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which receives foreign visitors to China, or of the Institute for International Strategic Questions, a newly organized think tank for the study of defense issues.

Fluent in English, German, French and Russian, Qiao played a central role in China's more active foreign policy after the Cultural Revolution and met with U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger to work out the details of the 1972 Shanghai communique that formally ended longstanding hostilities between the United States and China.

After becoming foreign minister in November 1974, he led China's delegation to the United Nations, met with most of the high-ranking official U.S. visitors to China and was principal host for former president Richard Nixon during his visit in early 1976.

Qiao, well-known for his wit, may be remembered as long for a diplomatic putdown of Kissinger as for his diplomatic achievements. After Kissinger butchered the Chinese language in attempts to be clever at a banquet during a 1975 visit to China, Qiao would not let the incident drop. At the start of a negotiating session the next day, Qiao told him in front of reporters, "Next time you want to speak a foreign language, try German. I will understand you better."