TOKYO -- The Chinese empire is so vast, so populous, and the inner workings of its power elite so enigmatic, that consolidating and holding power has never been a simple task. Now, that chore falls to President Jiang Zemin, who must hold on to the reins of power he has inherited from Deng Xiaoping.
To accomplish this, Jiang must wrestle with powerful forces inside and outside China -- from internal challenges such as rapid economic growth, mass migration, increasing corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor, to such external threats as Taiwan and the jarring onslaught of Western consumer culture.
China is struggling to keep its balance.
"I think the big question over the longer term is stability," said A. Doak Barnett, emeritus professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
"It really depends on how well the leadership can cope with the troublesome problems that have basically grown out of the rapid economic growth and reform and social change that has taken place."
China has implemented Deng's principle of "socialism with Chinese characteristics," meaning a full-bore acceptance of capitalist market forces and direct foreign investment, even as the Communist Party maintains unquestioned political control.
Once a nation dominated by state-controlled factories and giant bureaucracies that guaranteed citizens food, jobs and housing, the Chinese are now being coaxed to "jump into the sea" and explore the capitalist world of "survival of the fittest."
While some "winners" are being chauffeured in Mercedes limousines and have become paper millionaires, many thousands of "losers" are roaming urban China in hopes of finding day labor, since the nation does not have enough jobs to support its 1.2 billion people.
Closing thousands of money-losing state factories might be an attractive course, except for the millions more who would become unemployed. While coastal regions are booming with foreign factories, rural residents find their lives barely improved. And with so much new money sloshing through the economy, and the gap between rich and poor growing wider, corruption is intensifying.
In this confusing time, when young Chinese no longer have state socialism to believe in, the nation's new ideology seems to be nationalism -- and that raises worries among some analysts that China might become more aggressive in its foreign policy.
"There's a real arrogance in the land now that grows out of China's economic success," said Orville Schell, a China-watcher and academic. During a recent trip to China, he said, he found growing "xenophobia."
"Deng was not a hothead. One of the things he said, which we really miss now, is that while the United States and China have different ideologies, they do not have fundamentally different interests. That's gone by the wayside now."
But while China may strut its new economic clout, Charles Salmon, a former ambassador to Laos and one-time adviser to the U.S. Pacific Command, does not think the emerging giant is about to adopt a more belligerent foreign policy.
"I'm fairly sanguine about the so-called Chinese military threat within the region," he said. "They [Chinese leaders] may use some rhetoric that suggests there is some kind of backsliding, but I do not really think they are disposed to a great deal of foreign adventurism."
Strategically, China must contend with a strong U.S. military presence that is unlikely to diminish, given the scale of U.S. vital interests in the region and the apprehension with which many smaller U.S. allies look upon the emergence of China as a superpower.
China under Jiang -- or whomever -- faces other major challenges. Among them, it must successfully manage the handover of Hong Kong from the British on July 1, find a way eventually to reunify with the "renegade province" of Taiwan and make sufficient economic concessions to gain entry into the World Trade Organization.
While China's new rulers are likely to continue to attempt to restrict the flow of information into the country, that will be increasingly difficult because of easy access to fax machines and the Internet, says George Sollman, chairman of the American Electronics Association.
Still, China-watchers agree that little will change immediately with Deng's death.
"Deng had become a political symbol, not a political force; he left a legacy, but he was no longer an actor," said Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration who was President Nixon's translator during his breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
"When Mao died, people thought this was an opportunity to reverse policies which were catastrophic, misguided and had failed," he said. "The situation with Deng is different because he succeeded. His 19 years of rule are the longest period of tranquillity and rising prosperity China has experienced since the end of the Opium War."
Pub Date: 2/21/97