China: can a communist system reform itself?

In Peking a Western diplomat predicts that China may be entering the most serious power struggle since Mao Tse-tung launched the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But, whether or not similar violent turmoil develops, the issues are different now. The question is not so much whether a post-revolutionary society can achieve the ideological and moral renewal sought by Mao -- but whether a communist system can reform itself.

Ironically, China's present most powerful leader, Deng Xiaoping, was one of the Cultural Revolution's first targets. Now he is evidently orchestrating a purge of entrenched officials resisting economic and other reforms from which they stand to lose. It is less a matter of ideology than of turf, less an elimination of lingering Maoists or military opponents than a pruning of bureaucratic deadwood and corruption.

One of the reasons is simply the need for savings to offset the regime's first big brush with budgetary deficits. Another is the need to counter a mood of hopelessness among young Chinese which otherwise could lead to widespread disruption.

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Among the reforms bringing resistance is the effort to make Chinese industry more productive and competitive. Economic bureaucrats have been accustomed to set prices according to plan. Now they see power slipping through their fingers as industrial enterprises are decentralized and allowed to do their own pricing to take advantage of the market. Officials whose clout has depended on the centralized system find themselves vulnerable when the provinces are pressed to compete with each other for foreign trade.

Here is another irony in the situation. The regime's very call for competition has appeared to increase the corruption it now is trying to root out. For years Chinese officials and businesses have operated under communist adminstration but not under the rule of law. Unleashed to compete -- but still without an effective rule of law -- many have apparently not learned how to scramble for competitive advantage without corrupt means.

With so much redundant bureaucracy in the provinces, much of the need for reform lies outside Peking. Thus Deng's absence from the capital recently may be a sign of his personally addressing the problem even though he has reportedly given up day-to-day decisionmaking.

Some have suggested that Deng's appearance of stepping aside -- though not down -- at the age of 77 is intended as an example to other elderly administrators to relinquish duties and make room for younger people. It is also speculated that Deng may be preparing the way for proteges to take up the reins.

But it should be noted that for the past four years Deng has shown he can be the top man without formally taking on the top offices. He obviously could have been prime minister and party chairman if he chose.

Now he has a new challenge. He has to risk a certain amount of divisiveness by insisting on reforms. He faces vested interests and officials reluctant to take the responsibility to make waves with uncertain consequences. Yet he has to seek to unify the country through strong leadership.

Apart from the matter of who is in command and to what degree, there remains the question which China as a whole has to answer: How far can a land so long under the thrall of communism rise to the need of its people under the winds of change?

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