The Chinese government today shut down a newspaper that published an impassioned plea for political reform along with a critique of past leaders by Mao Zedong's former secretary, sources said.

Li Rui, 85, the personal secretary to the founder of Communist China, criticized Mao for creating a cult of personality and subsequent leader Deng Xiaoping for failing to carry out political reforms. The interview was published March 3 in 21st Century World Herald, a weekly newspaper.

In addition, Li, for the first time in any major Chinese newspaper, praised Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party general secretary. His death in April 1989 touched off a wave of student protests that ended with the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The newspaper opened last year, and its circulation had risen to more than 200,000. Sources close to the paper said the order to halt publication came from the Guangdong province propaganda department. The 21st Century World Herald is published in the southern city of Guangzhou by the Southern Daily Group, one of the biggest media groups in China. A sister publication, Southern Weekend, has undergone a series of purges because of its propensity for also publishing controversial articles.

Li has been a member of the Communist Party since 1937 and has distinguished himself as a champion of political reform. In several brief phone conversations, he initially agreed to an interview request but then declined today, saying his interview with 21st Century World Herald had brought him an enormous amount of trouble.

Sources were unclear about how long the paper would be closed. One said the order was temporary.

The closure took place during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's annual legislative session in Beijing. The Congress will approve the election of senior Chinese leaders during the session, including a new president, premier and foreign minister.

China's tightly controlled publications recently have published articles calling for political reform. Some of the articles have relied on interviews with elderly Communists such as Li Rui, who are generally protected from persecution. Yuan Geng, another former senior official, gave an interview to Southern Breeze, another crusading magazine, earlier this year in which he called for the establishment of a checks and balances system along Western lines, something that China's senior party leadership has rejected.

Chinese journalists said the closure was taken as warning about such activity to other publications.