China's official press today published a long-awaited criticism of the late Mao Tse-tung, apparently signaling a halt to months of Communist Party infighting and a break in the deadlock that has delayed top leadership changes, including the demotion of Chairman Hua Guofeng.

The criticism, spread across half the front page of the party newspaper People's Daily and prominently displayed in China's other major papers, concluded that Mao made "serious mistakes" during his last 20 years as chairman but that his errors pale when compared to his contributions.

"While chairman Mao committed mistakes in his later years and some of his statements were incorrect or out of date, the essence of Mao Tse-tung thought will continue to guide the party and the people in their march forward," said the article signed by senior party official Huang Kecheng.

Although a similar evaluation appeared in the official press in December, its reaffirmation today after a four-month hiatus indicates that this form of limited rebuke of Mao, who died in 1976, has gained widespread consensus among China's disparate political and military leaders.

Perhaps most significantly, the criticism is reported to have occupied the entire front page of yesterday's internally circulated Liberation Army Daily, indicating that the powerful military now concurs with the assessment of Mao put forth last December by the team of veteran party officials now running China.

That criticism actually was a reprint of a speech made last November by the same Huang Kecheng, secretary of the Central Committee's central discipline commission, which monitors behavior of party officials. Diplomatic observers believe it has taken since November to gain consensus for the speech's main points.

His speech struck a compromise but did blame Mao for "being too impatient for more and quicker results" when he launched the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, which drastically intensified rural communization and eliminated peasants' private enterprises at the expense of great loss in productivity.

The issue of Mao, according to Chinese sources, has preoccupied the nation's leaders for months;, serving as a focal point of debate over the larger questions of how best to modernize China's economy, restore public confidence in the party, reform party life and run the 4 million-man military.

Pragmatic leaders headed by Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping have pressed for some criticism as a necessary step for setting the nation's course, a way of repudiating the kind of Maoist policies that led to the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Considerable opposition, however, is said to have come from party officials especially military leaders, who still cherish such Maoist principles as guerrilla war strategy and nonmaterial incentives.

Although the issue seemed to have reached resolution when the People's Daily first criticized Mao in December, conservative resistance resurfaced shortly afterwards during the political show trial of Mao's widow and during the secret Politboro meeting aimed at dumping Mao's handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng.

Although Hua recently has appeared publicly, diplomatic observers believe the chairman simply is being accorded greater courtesy to appease his backers. He is still expected to step down at the next party plenum, they said.

With the debate over Mao's role in history still raging until recent days, well-placed Chinese sources reported that there were no plans for a plenum before summer.