The greater their renown, the greater their error--that seems a fitting axiom for politically committed scholars. Certainly it applies to what the experts told us about Mao's China in the politicized 1970s. China then was still staggering through the bloody and ruinous Cultural Revolution, but no American scholar who was admitted to Mao's realm seems to have caught on. Professor John Kenneth Galbraith returned to write enthusiastic asseverations in "China Passage." Read it. It will give you no hint that Galbraith has just left a country convulsed in violence and oppression, its universities paralyzed, its economy in chaos, its people terrorized. 4 On the contrary, Galbraith found Mao's economy "highly effective"; it "functions easily and well" with a performance rivaling Japan's. Refugees who had just scurried to Hong Kong were telling horror stories of persecution and deprivation, but the Galbraith line was the accepted line in America's fashionable realms, where he was seen as an objective scholar. Unlike the refugees, he had no ax to grind. "Dissidents are brought firmly into line in China," he noted, "but with great politeness." 2 An economy rivaling Japan's? Maoists that "command with a smile"? The years from 1966 to 1976 are now known as "the black decade" in China. How has Galbraith taken the news of Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping's 1980 speech, wherein he looked back on the era and confirmed the refugees' reports --that is to say, "arson, murder, bombings, robbery and theft; frequent reports of rape, the kidnapping and sale of women and organized prostitution . . ."? Now China's government confirms that as many as 10 million died during Mao's Great Leap Forward.

Reviewing Galbraith's recent memoir, the indefatigable Sidney Hook observes that, though the memoir contains "large chunks of his other volumes," Galbraith makes no reference to "China Passage" and undertakes no reevaluation of his misperceptions of Maoist China. His failure to correct these blunders is not unique. Despite all the claims made for learning and reason, few of other fashionable scholars ever admit to error in their political observations. Certainly the most renowned China scholar, John King Fairbank, has not recanted in his recently published memoir, "Chinabound, A Fifty-Year Memoir"; and his praise of Mao's China encouraged much of the 1970s Mao-mania.

Back in 1972, when Galbraith was dining with the smiling lieutenants of Chairman Mao, Fairbank was propounding the trendy line in Foreign Affairs: "The stress and even violence of 1966-69 have now been succeeded .. . 4 by a sense of relaxation and euphoria that makes 1972 a happy time to be in China." And he concludes that the "Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in many centuries. At least most Chinese seem now to believe so, and it will be hard to prove otherwise."

Well, Deng today seems to disagree, and less celebrated scholars like the German Jurgen Domes have concluded that in the early 1960s the Great Helmsman's botches were so egregious that "not less than 10 million people and possibly from 25 to 40 million fell victim to the consequences of lack of food." Demographic studies cited by the specialist Vaclav Smil speak of a net population loss of as many as 25 million between 1959 and 1961 alone.

Back in 1946, Fairbank wrote that the Communist Party "seeks to align itself with the Chinese liberal tradition, which is mainly the tradition of individual self- expression on the part of the scholar class.. . . 4 the courageous scholar has been the man entitled by his learning to speak out against the misdeeds of authority." Fairbank proudly reprinted these observations in his 1974 book, "China Perceived," which appeared about the time that the Red Guards were torturing and intimidating Chinese scholars on a vast scale.

In his new book, "Chinabound," Fairbank speaks of his "abiding commitment to educate the American public" so that policy will be based on "knowledge and reason." He shows no relish to educate the American public on how wrong he and his friends have been about Mao's China. That task he leaves to the courageous scholars at work in our own tradition, the ones who told the truth about Mao while others conformed to the fashions of the time and dabbled in politics.