Amid China's recent high political shifts and drama, the Peking Daily printed a curious warning, which said in essence: "Don't believe any rumors, and don't spread any rumors about impending earthquakes in the nation's capital."
The government calls it feudal superstition, but most Chinese still believe that natural calamities signal a loss of the "mandate of heaven," which in imperial times was the spiritual basis for a ruler's power.
So it apparently came as little surprise to the Peking Daily when earthquake rumors began circulating this month after the loss in whatever heavenly grace still existed for the man known as China's communist emporer, Mao Tse-tung.
In three quick strokes, the myth of Mao was reduced to mortal proportions. His radical policies were criticized as wrong and destructive. His chosen heir was impolitely dumped. An old political foe was elevated to party chairman and promptly urged the nation to implement reforms that Mao once branded as counterrevolutionary.
From a historical standpoint, the Communist Party's dramatic decisions were the closest China has come to Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956.
Like the Soveit precedent, however, the felling of the once omnipotent communist hero was even more significant as justification for the rule of his successors. In China's case, it represented the most important step yet in the transfer of power from leftists, who have controlled the nation since the late 1950s, to a team of veteran pragmatists led by Deng Xiaoping.
Even more important for the nation's future, the usually querulous leadership agreed to condemn Mao's strategy for modernizing the nation -- an approach characterized by political campaigns, emphasis on revolutionary fervor over expertise, self-reliance in foreign policy, forced egalitarianism and the glorification of the individual over government.
Mao's blueprint managed to preserve China's ideological purity for much of his 27 years as the nation's political leader. But is also spawned several ruinous economic programs and political movements that left a whole generation of uneducated youth, widespread public cynicism about the party, a battered professional class and per capital incomes not much higher than the 1950s.
The historical document issued June 30 by the Central Committee spared little in denouncing those programs: the crash economic plan of 1958 to 1960, known as the Great Leap Forward, was "overhasty" and costly. Mao's purging of official critics in 1958 "undermined the party," and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 brought "catastrophe."
More significant for today's leaders, the report makes clear that Mao's old victims -- the so-called pragmatists who prevailed in the early 1950s, lost out to Mao's radical solutions beginning in 1957 and often suffered persecution because of their opposition -- are history's real victors.
Many of the same men, including Deng, whose voices were silenced by Maoist rhetoric for most of their careers, are now running China, implementing a very different modernization strategy featuring centralized economic and political controls, material incentives, development of a technical and scientific elite and imports of foreign know-how from the West.
"This reaffirms the strategy of the 50s," a Western diplomat observed. "It's the Great Leap Backward."
Deng finally found a constituency for this gradual, steady growth plan only Mao died in September in 1976 and his radical associates were arrested a month later. Deng, who had been purged a second time by the radicals, regained power in late 1977, and he set forth his new scheme at a Central Committee meeting in December 1978, which is referred to in the document as "a critical turning point of far-reaching significance in the history of our party."
At the same meeting, Deng, who is now 76, began installing like-minded modernizers whom he could trust to finish his work after he dies or retires. The succession plan began flowering last September when one of his proteges, Zhao Ziyang, 62, was named premier, replacing Mao's appointee, Hua Guofeng.
The process ended earlier this month with the naming of Deng's longtime friend, Hu Yaobang, 67, as chairman of the party, replacing Hua, who was dropped to the most junior vice chairman and reproached for his slavelike loyalty to his mentor Mao.
While the Central Committee handed Deng the biggest victory of his long political career, his gains could prove to be elusive if he departs too soon, according to diplomatic analysts. His two proteges, Hu and Zhao, while respected, lack the network of political contacts and institutional power needed to hold off the still powerful Maoists in the party bureaucracy and military, the analysts said.
Evidence of this residual leftist strength was made clear by the kind of compromises Deng was forced to accept in exchange for getting his way on the Hu appointment and the document, diplomats point out. Although Hua was demoted, he retains the important post of vice chairman. Although Mao was criticized, he still was described as China's "greatest national hero" whose contributions outweighed his mistakes.
Another sign of Deng's fragile victory was his takeover of the party's military commission, which runs China's powerful armed forces, diplomats said. Although the job normally falls to the party chairman, Hu is believed to be unwelcome in military circles and Deng, and old Army political commissar, apparently thought it wise to assure control through his command.
Nevertheless, Hu now is well-positioned to build a power base. With his old job as party general secretary, which he apparently retains, and his new one as chairman, he has unquestioned control of the party apparatus and an influential voice in party and government affairs.
The first test for the new triumvirate ruling China -- Deng, Hu and Zhao -- comes at the party congress scheduled for early next year. There, they will have a chance to elect a new Central Committee closer to their own moderate policies than the current body that was elected soon after Mao's death in 1977.