Pragmatism in Peking

The human race must lament that a billion of its members remain under dictatorship in China. But, so long as they do, the rest of the world can only hope that the newly confirmed ''pragmatic'' dictatorship of Deng Xiaoping turns out better than the discredited ''ideological'' dictatorship of Mao Tse-tung. Such could be the result if Deng follows through on the fight against corruption and inefficiency at home - and on the effort for stable and noninterfering relations with other countries.

Deng did not get all he wanted out of the Communist Party congress this month. But he kept the reins for himself and his proxies - and finally eliminated Mao's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, leaving him in a token role.

The strains of transition may be suggested by the fact that it has taken six years for Deng's order of things to be crystallized. Even now some elderly ideologues have held onto party posts. But Deng has added people of his own to offset them. A chief protege, Hu Yaobang, is general secretary of the party.

What tendencies lie behind the changes in party machinery, personnel, and constitution? Here are a few:

* A more modest tone in foreign policy. Unlike previous party documents, this constitution did not attack the United States and the Soviet Union by name when it came out against imperialism. There was a renunciation of active support for communist revolution abroad. The latter could be of particular interest to Malaysia and Indonesia, which have harbored some suspicions about Peking's intentions.

* A renewal of independence and national pride. With the opening toward the West, a generation of Chinese young people could be ''contaminated.'' Deng faces the problem of maintaining control over them. The appeal to nationalism is one approach - as in the matter of Taiwan and in Peking's attacks on Japan for those textbooks altering wartime history. The appeal to independence is another. These are characteristic of third-world countries, with which China is stressing its identity - though it obviously does not intend to remain third-world in the undeveloped sense.

* Related to the above is the shifting attitude toward Washington and Moscow. China still sees economic and security advantages in links with the US. But it is resuming talks with the USSR as if it also sees advantages in equidistance between the two superpowers. China no longer criticizes the Soviet Union's internal society; it has dropped the jabs at revisionism and capitalist resurgence - perhaps because Peking is not entirely free of these itself these days. In another significant switch, China has backed away from the doctrine of the inevitability of war with Russia.

Outsiders may observe that there could be a gap between the positions enunciated at the party congress and what happens now. All the more reason to listen to one of the things that was said, if we may paraphrase: watch what we do, not what we say.

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