All's peaceful in China until Deng meets Marx

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 17, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- All is peaceful under heaven -- for now.

But it is a measure of the shakiness of China's body politic that discussions of its future peace invariably begin with the question of what happens after senior leader Deng Xiaoping, 89 and long ailing, finally dies.

Last week, the old man summoned the strength to perform his annual rite, turning up on television from Shanghai for a few minutes. The world's largest nation could get through its most important holiday with its vital lie somewhat intact.

So Mr. Deng isn't dead yet, despite many predictions that he would not make it through this winter. That was the very unsubtle message of his Shanghai TV ritual, kicking off China's Lunar New Year fest.

As usual, this year's performance turned China watchers into amateur physicians, as they tried to assess the patriarch's proximity to his grave by the look in his eyes, the way he leaned on his daughter and how loudly she spoke in his one good ear.

The truth is that Mr. Deng has looked half out of it for several years now. Those who really know whether his condition has worsened don't talk about it. He could be dying as this is being written or he could ring in many more Spring Festivals.

Just as unknown is what will happen here after his death.

Relative to the absence of major breaking news here the last few years, Beijing is one of the more intensively monitored "foreign" stories by Western media.

Add to that the obsessive focus of the world's Sinophiles, and the result is that every possible post-Deng scenario -- from immediate revolution to business as usual -- has long been thoroughly dissected.

Still, no one can know for certain what will happen here when Mr. Deng, in his much quoted words, meets Marx.

The safest bets, however, are on the short-term caution of the Chinese people and the long-term tendency of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party to wage power struggles.

This translates to something of a honeymoon period immediately in the wake of Mr. Deng's death in which it's unlikely that China's streets would fill with emboldened citizens in the manner of 1989's Tiananmen Square protest. Most are apt to wisely wait and see which way the wind is blowing before sticking their necks out again.

It also means that a tug of war within the party's top leadership -- already under way -- will likely heat up. After all, that's the main job of party leaders: gaining and holding power.

That's not to say another round of "da luan," or "big disorder," couldn't crop up quickly here. There are more than enough sources of popular discontent. Whether disorder rises probably depends on how messy things get within the party.

In the meantime, count on hearing a lot from Mr. Deng's heirs about "stability."

These days, stability here means more or less what it's meant in the best of times in China over the centuries: The regime that happens to sit on Beijing's throne keeps things sufficiently peaceful -- with heaven's blessing of course -- so the Chinese people can get on with their scramble to better their families' lives.

Truth be told, there's a decided strain of anarchism in Chinese society in spite of Beijing's continuing and considerable capacity for arbitrary state terror. The Chinese people traditionally have struck a kind of naked-Emperor deal with Beijing: Get off our backs, and we'll let you pretend to govern us.

Under Mr. Deng lately, this deal has worked remarkably well. At probably no other time in history have the lives of so many people materially improved so fast.

But what with Beijing having to pretend it's ruling China, a good deal of blue smoke and mirrors comes into play. And that's where Mr. Deng's annual Lunar New Year TV appearances fit in.

Others -- his daughters, ranking aides -- may issue edicts under Mr. Deng's name. His survival may be forestalling a war within the party. But no one seriously believes that this old guerrilla fighter really retains the energy or wit to run this huge land.

Tottering, vacant of eye, hard of hearing, he has become China's prime fiction, the ideal symbol for a nation that prefers the appearance of being led, the vital lie holding together an old social contract.

And so all is peaceful under heaven -- for now.

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