Stretching and bending the language of socialism China's party leaders have no choice but to keeptalking in Marxist terms

September 23, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Politicians are often accused of saying one thing and doing another, but the leaders of China's Communist Party must have set records in this field last week.

In the 15th Party Congress, a meeting held every five years to decide policy and select leaders, General Secretary Jiang Zemin had the unenviable task of justifying continued capitalist-style reforms in the words of Karl Marx.

As if playing a rhetorical game of Twister, he stretched and bent the language of socialism to fit the country's continued push toward a market economy. The results were, naturally, Orwellian.

Standing in the Great Hall of the People -- where the public was forbidden -- Jiang argued that market reforms are just a Chinese variation on socialism. On Thursday, the congress' last day, delegates enshrined the late Deng Xiaoping's famous fig-leaf phrase "socialism with Chinese characteristics" into the constitution.

Speaking in oxymorons

On other topics, Jiang seemed to speak in oxymorons. In a section of the speech -- which ran nearly 2 1/2 hours -- he spoke of strengthening "democracy" in this authoritarian country.

"All the powers of the state belong to the people," Jiang said, referring to "China's state system featuring people's democratic dictatorship," an apparent reference to coercive, single-party rule.

Eight years after the Berlin Wall came down, it is striking to hear leaders continue to speak in the vocabulary of theories that have been so discredited. But the men who run China have no choice. If they don't keep talking in Marxist terms, they could be out of a job.

On the one hand, hard-liners could try to oust them based on their betrayal of socialism. On the other, acknowledging that they aren't really Communists anymore would continue to undermine their credibility with an already-jaded populace.

The party "is incapable of re-inventing itself precisely because of its past," says David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in Washington. "They would love to just become another East Asian authoritarian party, but they can't."

As the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 demonstrated, China's Communist Party has little legitimacy. With larger-than-life leaders such as Mao Tse-tung and Deng now dead, power has shifted to technocrats who do not inspire patriotic loyalty. Young people are more interested in buying cell phones and cars than studying "Jiang Zemin Thought." Those who join the party usually do so for career advancement, not because they believe in socialism.

Although the party speaks in a language that seems totally divorced from the reality of modern China, it holds onto power through various means -- although fewer than before.

It has primarily based its claim to rule on its ability to raise the living standards of much of the population through capitalist-style reforms such as private ownership and stock markets. Since 1978, when Deng began opening the nation's economy, the per capita income has doubled twice.

China's leaders also have tried to hold together this fractious nation of 1.2 billion people by informally replacing Communist ideology with nationalism. A huge digital clock in Tiananmen Square, which counted down the minutes to the Hong Kong handover in July -- and symbolized the end of more than a century of humiliation at foreign hands, as party officials liked to say -- is just one example.

Although the party maintains control over the military, internal security and the news media, it can no longer manage a tight grip on its people in an increasingly decentralized government. And its political appointment system, a key lever of power, has declined dramatically.

As the Chinese become more comfortable economically and worry less about the necessities of life, some analysts think they will begin to demand better, more efficient government and services as those in Taiwan and South Korea have. Many also worry that a sharp economic downturn and an internal political struggle could lead the party to simply implode.

"I think this population is harder to lead than at any time in the past," says one Western academic in Beijing. "If this economy went into recession, I think systemic collapse is one feasible option."

No obvious alternatives

One of the party's greatest strengths, though, is that it faces so little competition. In a single-party state, where the rulers have jailed or muzzled most of their critics, there aren't any obvious alternatives.

Moreover, in a nation that has suffered through a famine that cost as many as 30 million lives and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, people know that things always can get worse.

"It's all very well to say that this party has no legitimacy," says one Western diplomat in Beijing, but "if this party were to go, it would be a disaster. It is not as though other well-organized groups with sensible policies exist out there and can step into the breach."

Given the political vacuum, slow, orderly Western-style democratic reform -- which Jiang vigorously rejected last week -- might not be quite as bad as the party thinks.

"If the Communist Party were to hold an election today, I think the party could do pretty well," says Dali L. Yang, a University of Chicago professor of political science.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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