Mao Tse-tung's declining status appeared to be reflected in the Chinese media's discreet handling today of what would have been his 91st birthday.

The reticence contrasted with the fanfare and eulogies that greeted the anniversary last year and seemed to be part of an official policy to consign his memory slowly to oblivion.

Three newspapers, the People's Daily, the Guangming Ribao and the Peking Daily, carried a short New China News Agency article that merely said 4.96 million foreign and Chinese visitors had visited Mao's mausoleum here since its opening in 1977. No mention was made of his birthday.

A year ago, the press published articles dedicated to his memory for several weeks, and party chief Hu Yaobang said he was "the greatest and most eminent person" in China this century and his thoughts would "shine forever." Dozens of plays, operas and films glorified him and symposiums on his philosophy were held throughout the country.

At the time of the 90th anniversary, an official campaign against "spiritual pollution" was underway, attacking "incorrect ideological and political beliefs" imported from the West.

Since Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatic followers took over the reins of power in 1978, two years after Mao died, the government has adopted an ambiguous attitude toward Mao's memory. They acknowledge his pivotal role in the Chinese revolution before the Communists seized power in 1949, when the People's Republic under his leadership was created, but condemned "serious mistakes" committed toward the end of his life.

The nature of these "mistakes" has never been spelled out, but they are widely held to refer mainly to the 10-year Cultural Revolution and ensuing radical period ending in 1976, a time of ideological militancy that set back the economy disastrously.

The "Great Leap Forward" of 1957-59, which caused widespread famine, also is regarded by China's modern leaders as disaster. Some refer to it in private as the "great leap backward." But China's post-Mao leaders have stopped short of a systematic denunciation of his policies, and his ideas are still an ideological pillar of government policy.

In 1979, Deng told an Italian journalist: "We will never do to Mao what the Soviet Union did to Stalin" -- referring to the Kremlin's complete denunciation of the once-revered Soviet leader after his death in 1953. Mao sacked Deng in 1966, when he was already a prominent party leader, for "following the capitalist road."

Deng was later rehabilitated, but in 1976 he was dismissed again in a power struggle after crowds in Peking's Tiananmen Square rioted. The violence broke out as crowds that had gathered to honor the memory of prime minister Chou En-lai confronted police.

Mao's mauseloeum, an austere granite building in the square, was built in record time and opened its doors 11 months after he died in September 1976. The mausoleum was renamed the Monument to the Heroes of the Revolution last December. It now houses four exhibition halls dedicated to China's most prominent dead Communist leaders -- Mao; Chou; former president Liu Shaoqi; and marshal Zhu De, who founded the People's Liberation Army.