Two-Headed Dragon -- the Coming Sturggle fro Power in China

GWYNNE DYER

August 10, 1993|By GWYNNE DYER

London. -- The emperor is dying. After 14 years of total control over almost a quarter of the human race, China's paramount leader Deng Xiao-ping is about to join the Great Majority.

He is leaving at the worst possible time for the future of Communist rule. The Chinese economy is spinning out of control again.

Deng, who is now 89, went into hospital in Beijing in April. When he was released in early July, his health had not improved. He had a stroke late last year, he suffers from Parkinson's disease and kidney problems, and he is virtually unable to communicate. Basically, he has been sent home to die.

It is a testimony to Deng's immense prestige that so long as he lives, the system stands, even though he can no longer receive even his closest political allies. They will not open the succession struggle until he actually stops breathing.

But that will not be long now, and the struggle may be fatal for the regime.

Communism has been ultimately doomed in China since the massacre of students on Tiananmen Square four years ago destroyed the regime's legitimacy in the eyes of the hundred million educated, urban Chinese whose opinions matter most in such matters.

But that begs the question of when and how the regime is replaced.

Will it be before 1997, in which case Hong Kong automatically becomes China's commercial capital? Or after Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control in 1997, and after hard-line Communists in a last-ditch effort to restore obedience and ideological purity have made a horrible example of the capitalist enclave?

Will the change come more or less non-violently as in Russia, or in a civil war as in former Yugoslavia?

No definite answers to these questions are possible, but knowing that Deng will probably be dead by the end of the year (and perhaps much sooner) tells us a lot.

Above all, it means that his successors will immediately face an acute economic crisis, with all the potential for upheaval that that implies.

China's pattern, since Deng began to liberalize the economy at the end of the 70s, has been wild swings between inflationary booms and sharp panicky attempts to cool the economy. And when the brakes go on hard and consumption drops, as it last did in 1988, people's patience with their unloved Communist rulers snaps very quickly.

The last time the bubble burst was in 1988; Tiananmen Square came in May of 1989. Now the bubble is almost fully inflated again. After several years of 10-per-cent-plus economic growth, inflation is spiraling out of control in China's major cities.

The country presents a classic case study in speculative overheating. The entire east coast is turning into an endless, half-empty strip mall as every county and municipality jumps on the bandwagon and builds commercial space, much of which will never be utilized. And the value of farmers' products has eroded so much that there have recently been several armed clashes with the authorities in poorer rural areas.

It is high time to damp down this unsustainable wave of speculative growth, but nobody dares take the responsibility for such an unpopular decision while the death watch for Deng continues. The shaky collective leadership that succeeds him will be even more reluctant to incur instant popular displeasure by pulling the plug.

This means that the overheating will continue, and that the eventual bust will be even deeper and more painful. These are not propitious circumstances for the rise of a Chinese Gorbachev, but they will be fertile ground for the final overthrow of the regime.

If Deng had died at a better point in the cycle, there could have been time and space for a gradual dismantling of the political controls in China. The closet democrats who abound in the middle ranks of the Communist Party (as they did also in the Soviet Union) would have had time to undermine the party's position gradually without admitting what they were doing.

The final transition to a proto-democratic system might then have been as peaceful as in Moscow. But that is much less likely now.

Gorbachev started out with an apparently functioning economy, and though he frittered priceless years away while hesitating on basic economic reforms, there was enough time for the democratic process to take root and, indeed, get ahead of him.

In China, the changes will have to take place much faster, amid considerable popular anger about the economy. The prognosis, therefore, is for early and radical change, within six months to a year of Deng's death -- probably accompanied by a certain amount of violence.

And the danger exists, as it always does in China, that violence could degenerate into civil war, collapse of central control, and chronic warlordism.

Assuming that catastrophe can be avoided, however, China may actually be a shaky new democracy in only a couple of years' time. That would be the culmination of the most rapid and profound political transformation of all time.

In 1985, only about one-third of the human race lived under more or less democratic governments and that was the highest HTC proportion in history.

Since then, democracy has been breaking out not only in the old Communist world, but in places as diverse as Thailand, Mexico and South Africa. And if the Chinese now finally get their act together, the world will have gone from one-third to nine-tenths democratic in just one decade.

Gwynne Dyer writes a syndicated column on world affairs.

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