Selection of president confirms a new direction for China

The Chinese National People's Congress, which meets today, is electing its first head of state since the late 1960s. The revival of the largely ceremonial post of president is a further step in Deng Xiaoping's efforts to reaffirm the rule of law and government institutions which were smashed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

As for the choice of a state president, some Chinese officials make no secret that they expect the National People's Congress (NPC) to select Li Xiannian. Marshal Li, as he is known, probably represents a compromise between the more aggressive and pragmatic reformists under senior leader Deng Xiaoping and the relatively conservative officials suspicious of the drastic de-Maoization of the last few years.

Diplomats say that with Li as president there would be little danger of the post becoming an additional center of power challenging the authority of Deng Xiaoping, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and party leader Hu Yaobang. One reason is that Li is believed to be in poor health and is unlikely to travel abroad as a head of state is normally required to do.

An economic planner who attacked Mao for his wildly unrealistic economic policies in the 1950s, Marshal Li, unlike many of his colleagues, survived the Cultural Revolution virtually unscathed. Although he criticized Mao, he is not especially close to the powerful Deng Xiaoping, who is spearheading China's modernization drive.

Li was close to Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, who was regarded as a reformist at the time but is now seen as much more sympathetic to Maoism than the present leadership. Hua was ousted in 1981, but Li survived this setback, too.

To avoid an overconcentration of power in the hands of one man, the president is elected to a five-year term and can be reelected only once. The last Chinese head of state was Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao turned against in 1966. Liu was accused of being an American spy, a bourgeois reactionary, and every other epithet in the Chinese political vocabulary. Liu died in jail in 1969 but was rehabilitated posthumously after Mao's death in 1976.

Until now China's nearest equivalent to head of state has been chairman of the standing committee of the NPC, a post held by 86-year-old Marshal Ye Jianying. Ye has pledged to step down, much to the relief of pragmatists against whose reforms he has been fighting a rearguard action.

NPC deputy secretary-general Zeng Tao said there would be only one candidate for president, and that he would be nominated by the congress presidium ''after full consultations among the deputies.'' The candidate would be chosen from a list of nominees drawn up recently by party chief Hu Yaobang.

Zeng declined to say who was on the list or to confirm that Li Xiannian was likely to become president.

The meeting of the congress, expected to last about 17 days, will be formally opened by Peng Zhen, who is tipped to succeed Ye Jianying as chairman of the NPC standing committee, the executive forum of the congress. Peng, who looks much younger than his 81 years, was mayor of Peking until 1966, when he became one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since his reappearance in 1979, he has been in charge of reestablishing China's legal system.

Peng's opening speech will be followed by Premier Zhao's work report and speeches on the economy over the next few days. The state president will be announced around June 17.

The National People's Congress has little real power. Even so, it can no longer be labeled purely a rubber-stamp body. The congress, or its rather specialized subcommittees, make important decisions on legal matters, especially in the economic field. The current meeting is the sixth full session of the country's top official legislature since 1949.

Delegates to the NPC are elected by provincial people's congresses, which are chosen by lower-level assemblies. Details of the election process are obscure, but the Communist Party has the last word on who can run for office.

As part of efforts to introduce a larger degree of democracy into Chinese life, the number of non-Communist Party delegates to the NPC has risen to 37.5 percent, 10 percent more than at the last congress, which convened in 1978.

''Intellectuals'' make up 23.5 percent of the 2,978 delegates, almost as many as the number of workers and peasants combined, reflecting the great importance Deng and his colleagues attach to education and expertise. The current campaign to raise the living standards and prestige of intellectuals is in strong contrast to Mao's attitude, which was to respect them in theory but to persecute them relentlessly in practice because they represented the bourgeoisie.

Represented for the first time at the congress are China's 3.2 million self-employed. Private enterprise was banned as capitalist under Mao but is making a comeback as part of Deng's liberal economic reforms. In addition to choosing a state president, the NPC will name members of the national military commission, a new body to run parallel to the powerful party military commission headed by Deng Xiaoping.

The congress also is expected to pass laws reducing income tax on joint ventures with foreign companies and to pass a long-awaited patent law. Lack of a patent law has inhibited foreign firms from selling advanced technology to China , as the Chinese often take designs without payment.

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