China's bold course

The news emanating from Peking is not really new. Fundamental changes have been taking place in the People's Republic of China over many months now. But this does not diminish the significance of the Fifth National People's Congress now ratifying these bold reforms which, if carried through, will have a profound impact on China -- and on the world outside. Maoism in effect has been stood on its head.

Among the things to be noted about the congress is that this is the first time any communist society has arranged the peacefulsuccession of leaders who are still alive. The goal is long-term stability It is impossible to know the politically bitter twists and turns behind the scenes, but the elevation of Zhao Ziyang to the premiership and the diminution of party chairman Hua Guofeng have been accomplished without an open power struggle and that is most impressive. Deng Xiaoping, who as party vice-chairman will retain his authority during the phased transfer of power to younger leaders, has again demonstrated his skill and toughness.

Secondly, the congress confirms the pragmatic course on which Deng has launched China. The new leaders realize that, after so many years of turmoil and upheaval, the only way to make China a relatively modern country by the end of the century is to give its people a personal stake in the system. In other words, incentives to work and produce. Planners are not about to introduce capitalism, to be sure, but market forces and free enterprise will be given a decided role. Workers and farmers are to be remunerated for good output, and innovation and imagination are to be favored over slavish adherence to communist dogma. And, not least of all, married couples will be encouraged to have only one child -- a program that in the end may prove to be the most critical "reform" of all. Where this pragmatism will ultimately land China ideologically is anyone's guess, but certainly the new flexibility should help release the vast creative energies of the Chinese people.

Lastly, to support the above changes, China is modernizing its legal system, revising its tax laws, and carrying out other institutional reforms. Perhaps the most significant is the reported decision to permit the election of representatives to national and local government bodies and to abolish the lifetime tenure of Communist Party officials. While this would not affect the supreme authority of the party, it would introduce a degree of democratization, giving Chinese some say in the selection of leaders, weeding out incompetent officials, and preventing the lifetime entrenchment of a director.

Other reforms similarly point to the depth of the intellectual revolution now taking place. The official press, for instance, has been opened up to forthright and lively commentary by ordinary citizens (although underground publications have been suppressed). Churches and seminaries have been reopened and the Bible and the Koran have been republished. The basic philosophy of Marxism-Leninism as practiced by the Soviet Union is being rejected and communist dogma radically remolded into something uniquely Chinese -- a "Sinocommunism," as it were.

Whether all this will work as the big question of course. What is being attempted is extremely daring. It is one thing to criticize the misdeeds, cruelties, and mismanagement of the past, as Deng and his followers now are candidly doing; it is another to carry out virtually another revolution. The problems -- a backward economy, the need to feed a billion people, the lack of skilled personnel -- are formidable. What happens when the lid of liberalization is lifted and people's expectations grow beyond the regime's ability to satisfy them?

Introducing market socialism -- even beyond the Yugoslav model -- will have its potential pitfalls. With factories given the right to hire and fire, for instance, this could lead to unemployment and labor unrest. Decontrol of prices seems bound to ignite inflation. Social strains could arise as private wealth is created and a gap develops between rich and poor, violating not only the communist but the Confucian egalitarian ethic.

Ther is, too, the matter of thousands of conservative party bureaucrats who have gone through the psychological wringer of de-Maoization. With Mao discredited, it not entirely removed fromt he pantheon of respected leaders, the youth in particular are confused and ambivalent. Will they put their shulder to the wheel?

In this connection, will the leadership be able to contain those who desire greater political freedom? The regime has pulled back since the heavy days of "wall poster democracy" and indeed the Constitution is being revised to eliminate the freedom to write "big character posters." Deng is aware he must open up the country to Western influences and allow Chinese intellectuals more breathing space in order to nudge China forward, but he has also made clear he will not tolerate Western-style dissent which could destabilize the country.

This is discouraging from the West's point of view. But it must be recognized that China treads on a razor's edge as it tries to liberalize without inviting anarchy and loss of discipline. The dominant yearning of the Chinese people today is for order and stability and an end of the convulsions that shook the nation so often under Mao. While the West should not shy from holding up the ideal of human rights for all nations and measuring the People's Republic against those standards, it could prove counterproductive to press the Chinese leadership too far.

For a country that has been authoritarian for centuries and is trying to overcome years of chaos and despotism, it can be counted a hopeful sign that it is cautiously opening the door to winds from the West. Not under the pressure of foreign powers but by its own volition. This is a remarkable and salutary trend that deserves encouragement.

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