Deng revives reform movement in China hard-liners lose 3-year control

March 13, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's top leader Deng Xiaoping, 87 and said to be in ill health, has mustered enough political support to triumph for now over hard-line socialists in his renewed bid to accelerate China's economic reforms by any means.

The significant victory in Mr. Deng's power struggle with more doctrinaire Chinese leaders was evident in a rare public statement here yesterday by China's Communist Party.

The strong message from the party's ruling Politburo -- bannered in every state newspaper and on government television -- endorsed aggressive liberalization of China's economy, while diminishing the role of socialist ideology.

The Politburo specifically warned against "formalism" and "leftism," a direct attack on Mr. Deng's conservative opponents whose power grew in the wake of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Some of these leaders' followers reportedly now face losing their positions.

"Reform and opening to the outside world should be carried out in a bolder way and one should dare to make innovations and experimentations," the statement said, even advising that "whether a move is socialist or capitalist" only depends on

whether it develops "our socialist country."

While advocating a 100-year commitment to this economic pragmatism, the Politburo avoided any mention of political changes -- save for those promoting "political stability," the key code phrase here for continuing the Communist Party's unchallenged rule over China.

Whether Mr. Deng has won more than just a battle in the power struggle may become more apparent later this month at the annual meeting of China's national legislature, a session for which yesterday's statement will serve as the rallying point.

However, it likely will not be until this fall's party congress -- the first in five years -- that a firm outcome may emerge in the form of high-level leadership changes. At that time, some elderly conservatives may be moved aside in favor of younger technocrats, some of whom have family ties to current top leaders.

In the meantime, Chinese and Western analysts here yesterday hailed the Politburo statement as confirmation that Mr. Deng still has clout to bend the party to his will.

Mr. Deng became China's supreme arbiter of power in 1978. Before retiring from his last formal position in 1990, he had to wage similar battles several times to protect his reforms from conservatives as China zigzagged politically through the 1980s.

"It's testimony that this country is still run like a feudal society, where who you are is more important than what you are," said a Chinese professor. "What it is saying is what Deng has always said: Do anything to make the economy work but do nothing for freedom."

Some analysts speculated, however, that a renewed emphasis here on economics over politics might indirectly lead to a gradual loosening, if only marginally, of the tight control that has marked China since the Tiananmen crackdown.

The statement also implied an encouraging consensus for foreign investors, now sought by China more eagerly than ever as the nation emerges from a three-year austerity program that cooled its overheated economy: China wants aggressive economic expansion again.

The Politburo statement only mentioned Mr. Deng in lauding the gains produced by the market-oriented reforms he first introduced to China's centrally planned economy in 1979. But its wording mirrors his recent private speeches, which have been required study for officials recently, Chinese sources said. the past few weeks, according to Chinese sources.

Those directives were part of a campaign quietly begun last year Mr. Deng, after the fall of Soviet communism underscored that the Communist Party here could only stay in power if it continued to rapidly improve living standards.

Mr. Deng's campaign openly emerged with a January trip south to Guangdong province. That region has taken his economic reforms the furthest with spectacular benefits but increasingly Western social trends disturbing to conservatives -- a prime example of the tension at the core of the power struggle in which Mr. Deng now appears to be prevailing.

Nevertheless, the conservative forces within the party remain strong enough that Mr. Deng had to begin his campaign for stepped-up economic reforms outside of Beijing.

"He obviously wasn't able to turn the Politburo and the party around from Beijing, so he had to go the province that is most on his side and build party opinion starting from there," a European diplomat said here.

"It's a classic Chinese tactical ploy: conquering headquarters from the outside."

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