Can a great civilization rise again after decades of false starts?

Can a once-great civilization -- Earth's longest-running successful society -- pull itself up to leading rank once again? The question is worthy of a Toynbee. And it is of major importance, in the case of China, to the other three-quarters of the human race.

Elsewhere in the world we have seen fallen civilizations trying to climb the steep stairs again. Some have gone through a reducing salon before starting to climb once more: Austria minus its hyphen and its polyglot empire; Italy in a Risorgimento that omitted all the outlying Roman empire; Egypt, after Nasser's try at world leadership, settling for attempting to modernize at home.

Others have tried more grandly and stumbled. The Shah's new Persian empire, for example. And now perhaps the Iraqi successors to Mesopotamia next door. Still others -- like the heirs to the Byzantine and Ottoman emperors and Kemal Ataturk -- seem to be stuck after several tries at modernization.

Until just a few years ago China looked to be in the latter category, too -- a Sisyphus unable to roll its renewed civilization very far upward without having the whole thing crash back down again.

The names of China's attempts to get back up the stairs are evocative: the Great Leap Forward, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Cultural Revolution, Getting Rid of the Four Olds -- and now the Long March of Modernization (the Four Modernizations).

The contrast to neighboring Japan is striking. In just 35 years Japan has performed one of the great phoenix acts in history, rising from rubble and shock to what is in many ways the world's most sophisticated modern economy.

Yet some 450 miles away across the China Sea, the more massive trunk of the same rootstock, China, has in that same period made only fitful gains -- although it has successfully ended some galling injustices.

But an extraordinary experiment has been under way in China during the past five years. It represents such a dramatic change of course -- even if now geared down -- that some cautious economists and historians believe the Long March of Modernization has a chance to succeed where the previous, ideologically driven programs fell flat.

It will not be easy. Modernization will require two things: sustained popular enthusiasmm and huge amounts of capital.m

Today the enthusiasm is there in abundance. But there is not enough capital to do at once all the things that are desired and needed.

This constitutes the fundamental conundrum for Deng Xiaoping's regime: It wants to decentralize authority and emphasize competitive enterprise, unleashing the Chinese work ethic. But, after the first rush of farm and industrial enterprises for development capital, budgetary red ink threatened and the decentralizers had to reassert central control to help set priorities.

China's top leaders are still fiscal conservatives. They are wary of the capitalist habit of deficit financing, although they are admiring of the managerial techniques and high-yield results of competitive free enterprise.

One night at the end of last November, the Monitor's Takashi Oka and I sat in the apartment of an exceptional woman, the novelist Ding Ling. She, like China's tactical wizard, Deng Xiaoping, is 76. She, like he, has seen almost all of modern China's attempts to climb out of subjugation and decline -- the Sun Yat-sen revolution, Mao's long march (as well as Jiang Qing's arrival in Yunnan and her unerring instinct for capturing men of power), civil war, Japan's invasion, world war, liberation, leaps forward, cultural revolution. She has been kidnapped and jailed by Chiang Kai-shek's agents and exiled by Red Guards. Like thrice-deposed, thrice-arisen Deng, she speaks with the blunt frankness of those who have triumphed over adversity and have nothing to fear.

I had read that she first became interested in politics in 1919 when she heard about students parading rebelliously outside the walls of the Forbidden City shouting, "Long live Mr. D. [democracy]! Long live Mr. S. [science]!" This so strikingly paralleled the theme of today's modernization program that I asked whether she felt, from her perspective, that the more things changed the more they remained the same.

She replied by raising both hands and sweeping them around in a circle. "Yes ," she said, "I have seen it many times. We have come full circle. But this time I think it is better." (See adjoining box for an even earlier parallel to today's modernization drive.)

It may seem odd to quote the broad impression of a novelist in an assessment of economic and political progress. But I found her view echoed many times by Chinese in different professions and at different levels. It was also echoed by outgoing American Ambassador Leonard Woodcock and by an explorer for the incoming Reagan administration.

The thrice-born-again Deng has indeed managed to break out of the vicious circle of revolution that moves only so far before collapsing under the weight of either ideology or bureaucracy or both. The question is, for how long? And can he bring China to what Walt Rostow used to call the "takeoff point" by decentralizing and democratizing its economy?

The two themes mentioned earlier -- admiration for the fruits of Western enterprise and caution on indebtedness --seem to be determining Peking's course through the 1980s. First came the vigorous push for decentralization of economic control and encouragement of competition.

But, alongside this liberalization, central authorities had to pull in on the budget reins in order to avoid too much borrowing.

From 1976 to 1978, the Communist Party's Central Committee drafted an ambitious 10-year plan (1976-85) which would have doubled steel and coal production and used the results (along with foreign capital and joint enterprise know-how) to build 120 industrial complexes and to raise agricultural production sharply. This was put before the fifth National People's Congress in February 1978.

But by December that year, the Central Committee had decided to suspend the plan and go through a three-year readjustment instead. Western contracts were canceled (nearly two dozen, totaling $2.5 billion, with Japanese companies). Even the huge, ultramodern Baoshan steelworks being built by a consortium of West German and Japanese firms was put on hold late last year with the halting of the second stage of the $5 billion project.

A plan to let farm income rise -- thus helping rural interior China -- has had to be readjusted because of budget realities. And still more recently, Peking's economic planners felt they had to cancel more Japanese contracts to keep red ink under control.

Despite the dismay and irritation of the businessmen involved, a leading Japanese official told me that the slowing down of the overambitious plan is welcome. "It will be better in the long run for Chinese development, better for lasting business relations with the West, and less wasteful," he asserted.

So far, Chinese enthusiasm for the modernization program appears to have weathered the trimming-back of plans. From top to bottom in Chinese society this correspondent heard continual discussion of moves to free thought and enterprise by decentralizing control.

Such discussion seems to be moved equally by hope for future plans and undisguised distaste for the decade of the Cultural Revolution. Almost everyone an outsider speaks to in Peking gets around to mentioning the tragic loss of education, career, national production, freedom -- or even the jailing or death of friends -- all because of the Cultural Revolution.

The deep national emotion surrounding the trial of the "gang of four" illustrated this lament for a lost generation in a public, theatrical way. It was a national expiation. It was also an opportunity for the government to harness and keep fresh unpleasant memories, isolating opposition and stoking enthusiasm for the great change of course represented by Western-oriented modernization.

Will it work? Will this new move toward Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, goaded by memories of Dragon Lady Jiang Qing, the gang of four, and the cruel Cultural Revolution, really modernize China?

To answer, one must look at many factors.

First, there is that ancient human question: Can a people conquer its bureaucracy? This is a key question in China, where bureaucracies have traditionally outlasted emperors, invaders, and sometimes the popular will.

Deng has played his party apparatus skillfully. He has used incentive ideas and visions of independent management to stimulate thousands of factory leaders. He has called far-flung party leaders to the Great Hall of the People for pep talks on the modernization program. His government has tried to improve farm income to keep inland provinces abreast of progress in industrious, mercenary Shanghai and the heavily populated coastal strip. (Most of the leading conspirators of the gang of four were from Shanghai, a fact that lends a subtle contrasting virtue to Peking and the hinterlands.)

But next, one must look at what in Communist jargon are called "contradiction." For example: Decentralization leads to more local management decisions. Such decisions often call for improved efficiency. Efficiency often requires heavy capital expenditure. Too many such expenditures coming all at once -- for steel mills, earth-moving equipment, oil rigs, fertilizer, etc. -- bring heavy deficit financing. Result: The leader who wants to decentralize has to recentralize to the extent that he has to call in all the managers and cancel some programs in order to set central priorities.

Beyond that hurdle lies the question: How will hundreds of millions of individuals take to this startling change in the way life is conducted in a not-so-communist society?

Already, Army leaders have given some signs of restiveness, and entrenched local bureaucrats have resisted moves that threaten their areas of control.

Deng and his associates have made astute use of an unleashed and vigorous press. The informal free speech of Democracy Wall was restricted after a brief period, but the free digging of the official press has not been restrained. Mr. Oka and I spent a memorable evening with young English-speaking reporters for the 6 million-circulation People's Daily. Their vigor, searching minds, and enthusiasm for exposing wrongdoing matched that of top graduates of American journalism schools.

The two young men who worked on the letters column were particularly eager to help right wrongs. When provincial readers wrote to complain about abuses -- even those by local party officials -- the paper not only printed their letters, it also often sought action by the central ministry concerned. And even if the offender was himself a central minister, he was not immune.

Next question: You can goad party bureaucrats into better behavior, but can you persuade them to participate in a truly competitive economy?

There is little doubt about enthusiasm among many factory managers. But what about the higher layer of economic planners? As one might expect, there is more caution at that level. And yet the traditional Chinese work ethic seems to be strong enough to provide an incentive there, also. It would be presumptuous for a short-time visitor to generalize too broadly. But let me cite the case of one government economist:

After speaking almost by rote about modernization programs, this planner suddenly lit up as he described the case of two young men who had worked in a furniture commune. They had, he said, taken a chance and gone off on their own to start a new business in Peking. Its product: custom-designed furniture. And , he said with enthusiasm, they had a long line of customers and many back orders.

He also spoke with approval of plans for expanded banking that would allow local managers to borrow capital for plant expansion and other projects -- in addition to encouraging people to save.

On another occasion, in a tractor engine factory, a manager suddenly began to speak with added fervor when he described the modernization ideas that a World Bank team had proposed for improving the efficiency of his assembly lines and the streamlining of his engines. They were moves he then hoped to be able to make on his own initiative.

For Western governments and Western investors, the principal puzzle is not just whether the battle to overcome entrenched patterns can be won, but how soon.

At the end of last year, an American industrial trade fair, three years in the planning, was staged in Peking. (It took place, ironically, in a big exhibit hall built by the Russians.) Attendance was heavy; orders were few. But as I was talking to International Harvester representatives, they signed a major contract for earth-moving and farming equipment to be used in the agriculture expansion program for northeast China.

That scene may accurately mirror the realities of the next 5 to 10 years. American and other Western sellers and investors have gone through a seesawing of hopes on China trade. At first they told themselves there probably weren't as many opportunities as the vast population suggested. Then, despite the businessmen's self-caution, China trade fervor grew. With the 1978 revision of the 10-year plan and the canceling of contracts, pessimism again set in. But now the more persistent and perceptive firms are finding Chinese administrators buying in carefully selected fields -- such as offshore oil rigs and earth-moving equipment.

Former Ambassador Woodcock feels that the next decade may be slim on sales and investment for Western enterprises, but that those which persist and can fill a need will succeed in the longer run. He expects the gradual modernization of the Chinese economy to stimulate a growth in trade in the succeeding decade.

Even lifelong China experts cannot know how this great experiment in modernization will turn out. If highly trained economists with masses of computer data on a highly measured country like the United States cannot be certain about the economic cycle, how can observers of such a vast, populous equation as China do so, especially when China is attempting a 90-degree turn?

Deng, at the helm, has spun the wheel. It's hard to tell what angle the rudder has reached, even harder to detect which way the hull is heading. What he is attempting is rare in recent history: to systematically end a revolution. Mao's answer to the question of what to do after the revolution was over was "start again, and again." Napoleon's answer was emperorship (and so, in a way, was Mao's, and that certainly was Jiang Qing's aim). The Jacobins made fratricide an answer, as have other revolutionaries since. More recently, leaders like Ben Bella, Sukarno, Nasser, Castro, Nkrumah, and Qaddafi have let development at home go in favor of adventure abroad and unfulfilled claims to third-world leadership. None has managed the standing of a Bolivar.

Now we have the Deng answer on How to End a Revolution. It is similar to that of Sadat upon replacing Nasser and Boumedienne after deposing Ben Bella. It is not unlike that of Voltaire's hand puppet, Candide: Stay home and cultivate your garden.

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