China embraces capitalism, coyly Party congress likely to avoid dirty word

September 12, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- With the world's last major Communist Party opening its most important meeting in years here today, its top leader -- General Secretary Jiang Zemin -- is expected to preach capitalism.

He won't use the forbidden word. It will be cloaked in the same Communist jargon that appears on banners festooning the city.

But analysts say his message should be clear: China must speed up the privatization of its failing state-owned enterprises, which threaten to derail the country's drive toward a market economy.

It says a great deal about how much the world's most populous nation has changed in the past two decades that its leaders have come to embrace so much of an economic system they once reviled.

But how much longer a party that calls itself Communist can continue down the road toward capitalism while mouthing the words of Karl Marx remains an open question.

China "is no longer this Stalinist, predictable, highly controlled state it used to be," said one Western diplomat. "As they dismantle the system, they User.Event 7 was not expected here! have to find some way to rationalize it."

At this week's meeting, the 15th Party Congress, the party will map out its policy and choose people to lead China into the 21st century.

In particular, Jiang is expected to call for selling more shares in state-owned enterprises and encourage more capitalist-style reforms.

The task is enormous. It could take years to phase out or restructure the estimated 300,000 state-owned enterprises that employ more than 100 million people.

Left-wing critics, who do not appear to have much power in the party, have criticized these moves as selling out socialism.

But if there's any debate on the subject, it's not likely to be publicized, for the party congress is covered by a veneer of celebration, much like Beijing itself.

In anticipation of the congress and the Oct. 1 National Day -- China's Fourth of July -- the capital has taken on the air of an authoritarian Christmas party.

A giant fountain has sprouted in the middle of Tiananmen Square and colored lights fill many of the trees downtown. Flowers and patriotic banners -- "Rally closely with Jiang Zemin around the crucial Party Congress Committee," reads one -- have replaced many of the beggars and vendors who work the sidewalks.

Police officers crowd the intersections, pulling over drivers -- occasionally even those who appear to have done nothing wrong.

Last week, in what would seem the height of caution, police ordered a law firm miles away from the meeting to stop construction on an office addition. They later relented.

The Party Congress, held every five years and expected to last a week, will be the first in a long time without paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who died in February. His absence is already being felt.

Party congresses are normally highly choreographed affairs. Yet, late as yesterday, it was still unclear what would happen to Chinese Premier Li Peng.

Li, who is viewed in the West as the Darth Vader of Chinese politics for backing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, must step down next spring at the end of his second term.

That such a major personnel matter apparently remains unresolved suggests that Jiang does not have the power his predecessors had to impose his will.

"He's not fully in charge and he hasn't been able to get his way with some key appointments," said David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.

The apparent deadlock also illustrates a shift in the nature of Chinese government.

Essentially ruled by two supreme leaders -- Deng and Mao Tse-tung -- since 1949, China is now guided by consensus leadership with Jiang serving as first among equals.

"This is no longer a system of emperors," Shambaugh said.

In addressing the nation's troubled state-owned enterprises, Jiang is attempting to tackle one of the country's most difficult economic problems: reforming tens of thousands of money-losing, government-run businesses.

Jiang's expected call for privatization is not a new concept, but more a ratification of reality and encouragement for more companies to further experiment with reforms. For instance, several thousand small, state-owned enterprises in Sichuan province have sold shares to the public for the past four years.

How today's policy statement plays out in practice might take weeks or months to discern. At congresses, leaders tend to outline the party's direction with broad strokes and little detail.

On occasion, the policy statements have not been indicative at all. The Eighth Party Congress in 1956 was practical and reform-minded. Within 1 1/2 years, Mao launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward that caused massive famine and led to the deaths of as many as 30 million people.

As for two other major issues facing the Communist Party -- political corruption and political reform -- analysts are less sure what to expect during the congress.

Earlier this week, the party ousted Chen Xitong, Beijing's former mayor and party secretary, who lost his job two years ago when he was implicated in the disappearance of millions of dollars in public funds.

Corruption, rampant in China, is politically explosive. Although the 1989 Tiananmen movement is usually referred to as a democratic one, the demonstrators were also protesting widespread graft.

Wang Shan, a Chinese political commentator, said this week that the party might try to expand the powers of its disciplinary committee to better handle cases like Chen's, which has been delayed for political reasons.

Although there have been unusually public calls for political reform in the past month or so, many say they don't expect major steps in that direction.

As Shambaugh noted: "This is a Leninist party that does not want to give up power."

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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