China's Case of Jitters

January 10, 1995

While Russians debate their army's attempt to quell rebellion in Chechnya, loudly exercising free speech unthinkable a few years ago, China cracks down on dissidents harder than ever. Ian Johnson, The Sun's Beijing correspondent, gave a chilling account Sunday. The crackdown is worse since the United States gave up the pretense of holding trade hostage to democratic good behavior.

This should be seen in context. President Jiang Zemin, who is also Communist Party chief and military chairman and ostensible heir to the pinnacle of power, ordered the army to eliminate graft. He did so as the three million-man army is increasingly what holds the country together, and as many of its armaments plants turn to lucrative civilian industry. This can be seen as an effort to reassert political control of the army.

Also coincidentally, the State Planning Commission banned major new construction projects for 1995, hoping to restrain growth (now at an annual 11.8 percent) and inflation (24.2 percent). It is an attempt to assert state control of a half-liberated economy that is booming beyond control. No one expects the ban to be enforced in the southeast, or to last very long.

These forlorn attempts at control coincide with reports in Hong Kong and Tokyo that Deng Xiaoping, at 90 still the real ruler of China, is in failing health. There is doubt that President Jiang, Mr. Deng's chosen successor, can retain power after Mr. Deng's expiration.

Hence the jitters at a comparative handful of democracy agitators associated with the unrest of 1989, at an economy that governs itself, at an army command that lives on perks. Like Mr. Deng, his henchmen fear unrest. Anyone demanding improvements in human rights in China will be disappointed while the question of succession to Mr. Deng is up in air.

Trade, entrepreneurship and technology will bring more demands for freedom of thought and speech and responsive government. It will happen in China as it happened in South Korea and Taiwan. But not tomorrow. There will be more steps backward before a resumption of steps forward.

Meanwhile the legacy of Communist rule in China is a monster cornered, a monster frightened, a monster insecure -- unlikely, in the short run, to be nice. During this period, the valiant crusaders for democracy in China need all the moral help and succor their friends and admirers in the West can provide. They will triumph in the end.

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