BEIJING -- In the vast hollowness of the Great Hall of the People, the stage props were the same as every year: the bright flowers, the tiers of geriatric leaders, the thousands of half-dozing delegates. But the opening of this year's meeting of China's essentially powerless legislature had an expectant air, unusual in recent times.
China is shifting gears again, its sleepy political theater of the past two years lately enlivened by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's public drive for less dogmatism and more pragmatism.
Backstage, there were some signs and many rumors of an emerging power struggle, widely viewed as the final act of the Long March generation. And the first days of the legislature's two-week meeting provided a glimpse of some of the forces at work in that struggle -- beginning with Chinese Premier Li Peng's work report Friday.
The premier's speech, a state of the union address traditionally opening the National People's Congress, underscored the strength of the resistance to Mr. Deng's renewed campaign to expand his reforms that have transformed much of China over the last 13 years.
Mr. Li touched on most of Mr. Deng's latest themes. In line with the patriarch's recent dictum of less talk and more action, the premier's speech was only half as long and far less strident than vTC his effort last year. There was no mention of "foreign hostile forces." He began and ended with requisite nods toward "Comrade Deng."
But the premier's report was at best a lukewarm version of Mr. Deng's current line, as elaborated March 12 in an unusually direct statement from the Chinese Communist Party's leadership. That message warned against leftist ideologues, urged China to boldly experiment and even advocated using capitalist methods. In essence, Mr. Deng is urging China to open to the world and to embrace market-oriented economics as fast as possible. But Mr. Li's cautious talk boiled down to: Let's forge ahead at a controlled pace so as not to endanger our tight political control.
Widely reviled here and abroad as the guiding hand of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, Mr. Li owes his office to elderly conservative benefactors. His speech reflected their inertia and their preoccupation with combating rampant Western influences. It evidenced they still value control, even if it means sacrificing rapid economic improvement.
Among the panoply of Chinese leaders sitting behind the premier was Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, a reform-minded technocrat charged with remaking the bankrupt state sector of China's economy and a possible candidate to replace Mr. Li this time next year. In contrast to many of his colleagues, who dutifully leafed through the text of Mr. Li's speech as the premier droned on, Mr. Zhu appeared thoroughly disinterested, if not disgusted. Mr. Zhu may have been considering the realities of China's financial situation, as offered in a national budget report issued here Saturday. After a three-year fiscal austerity campaign, China's central government is still sinking in growing debt, primarily as a result of huge subsidies propping up the nation's failing state industries and keeping down prices on basic goods.
National campaigns have long been under way to induce efficiency in state factories and to do away with price subsidies, but Saturday's budget report shows they've had limited impact.
Mr. Deng apparently wants to move faster on these fronts, even at the risk of social turmoil from closing the money-losing companies. But for more conservative socialists, state enterprises define China's socialist economy and their subsidized employment insures public tranquillity.
Meanwhile, the red ink mounts most everywhere in China but in its coastal regions, which have wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Deng's ideas while attracting massive infusions of foreign capital. As evidenced by comments Saturday from leaders of southern China's Guangdong Province, the nation's richest and most freewheeling area, Mr. Deng's new drive has been a signal to further sidestep the limits desired by Beijing's conservatives.
Mr. Deng's campaign publicly emerged for the first time during a January swing through Guangdong, a trip aimed at outflanking his opponents. "The high demands of Comrade Deng Xiaoping" during that visit have resulted in Guangdong officials now planning reforms "more drastic than have ever been taken in China," said Zhu Senlin, the governor.