Who will win: China's Leninists or its reformers?

Waiting For Change

October 07, 1990|By JOHN E. WOODRUFF

TOKYO — Sixteen months and three weeks after the Beijing blood bath indelibly changed the way the world sees Deng Xiaoping's China, two prime architects of the massacre basked in high international honors at Tiananmen Square.

With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the Tiananmen demonstrators of 1989 still in Jail more than a year after the bloodshed, Beijing's, mayor, Chen Xitong, stood on the square to receive Olympic torches from four runners, merge them- into the single flame of the 1990 Asian Games and hand, it Premier Li Peng.

In May 1989, when students daily occupied Tiananmen Square to demand Mr. Li's resignation, it was the rock-hard Leninist Mayor Chen and the capital city's equally old-line top Communist, Li Ximing, that the premier called in to give senior leader Deng Xiaoping the briefing that convinced him the demonstrations added up to treason.

Since then, China has been ruled, through proxies like Premier Li and Mayor Chen, by a handful of hard-line Leninist revolutionaries, now in their 80s, who came back from putative retirement to order the blood bath, seize power and throw out the chief reformers of the 1980s.

Asian's leading sports pagent had been awarded years earlier to a different China, the rapidly opening country headed by Zhao Ziyang and the band of reformers he and Hu Yaobang had been putting in place for a decade.

But by the time the day of honor arrived, Mr. Hu was dead, Mr. Zhao was out of power and the Olympic torch was in the hands of the men who engineered the massacre of June 1989.

Their ability to keep the lid on a still-restive capital city long enough to take China's first-ever turn a host to a pre-Olympic spectacle made it possible for a few days to believe that resurgent old-style Leninism had successfully reimposed itself after the decade of increasing freedom that made the 1989 demonstrations possible.

Like the reimposition of a degree of social control and the massive displays of pompon wavers at Tiananmen for the Olympic torch ceremony, many of China's achievements since June 1989 have been the kinds of things Chinese Leninism has always done best.

The country's foreign reserves, for example, have risen to formidable levels.

For four decades, this careful husbanding of foreign exchange reserves has been a litmus test of hard-line orthodoxy whenever the Chinese Communist Party has been in the hands of control-minded men who don't hesitate to intervene with edicts that slow the outward flow of hard currency.

But with or without streets full of demonstrators demanding democracy, China remains a nation that is headed for profound and hard-to-predict changes for the rest of this century and well into the next.

The current rulers' Leninist obsession with social control produced a wave of executions to assure peace during the Asian Games and has imposed new orthodoxy on everything from movies to mathematics classes.

But the proxies who govern on behalf of the fading circle of revolutionary dotards show no sign of being able to assert full control of the country, of its economy, or of the changes the 1990s will bring.

Along the South China coast, Beijing's hard liners have to struggle every day to keep their influence comparable with that of the dynamic and unabashedly capitalist neighbors that are the region's business partners, management tutors and financial backers - Hong Kong for Guangdong province and Taiwan for Fujian.

In the interior, reformist governors and provincial officials, installed by Mr. Zhao power, find ways to keep a degree of free-market economics alive in provinces as diverse as Sichuan in the southwest and Anhui in the east.

They keep alive the reformist side in a power struggle that will, some time in the 1990s or early in the next century, determine whether China will renew the attempt to join the modern world that was the core of the reforms of the 1980s.

That struggle, which began while the reforms of the 1980s were still at their peak and erupted repeatedly into street demonstrations and sacking of senior reformists is over the right to succeed Deng Xiaoping as China's most powerful Communist.

The country that utterly lacks the institutions that make for orderly changes of power - vice president, no fixed constitution, no vote of confidence, not even a title and office that is clearly the center of real power - that struggle cannot end so long as Mr. Deng breathes.

What the current ascendancy of the hard line suggests is that the struggle also will not end any time soon after Mr. Deng is gone.

Contrary to assumptions that are implied in much Western writing about China, getting back to the reforms of the 1980s is not simply a matter of waiting for the giants of the 1949 Revolution to die off.

That is because the two sides are far more evenly matched than is usually assumed by Westerns sympathetic to reform.

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