Nanning, China — For many years a bastion of political conservatism, China's southwest province of Guangxi is only now going through the throes of the economic and political reforms that were first introduced nationwide by senior leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978.
The Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region borders on Vietnam. Its 36 million people inhabit an area the size of Britain and are made up of 12 nationalities. The most numerous of these is the Zhuang, with their distinctive language, customs, and intricate headgear.
The city of Guilin, in northeastern Guangxi, is celebrated worldwide for its weirdly shaped limestone mountains rising like sentinels from the valley floor.
Actually, much of Guangxi's landscape, including areas seldom seen by foreigners, is like that around Guilin, but on a grander scale. Wind and water work their magic on rock and stone in fantastic patterns, and in some of the region's remote valleys it is not unusual to see bridges of limestone silhouetted high against the sky. The earth tends to be red, as in Vietnam, and water buffalo plod along the roadside tended by black-garbed peasants.
A principal task facing the new leadership here is to educate Communist Party members to respect the law, says Rao Tao, deputy editor of the region's Communist Party newspaper, the Guangxi Daily.
In a meeting with visiting journalists, Mr. Rao said that Guangxi had lagged behind many other provinces in both political and economic reform and that real progress had begun only in February of this year, when Tao Xiaoguan became first secretary of the party committee and about half the top posts in the party and in the government changed hands.
Although Mr. Rao would not say so, Guangxi was for many years the stronghold of Gen. Wei Guoqing, a member of the Zhuang minority, who supported Deng against the so-called ''gang of four'' (headed by Mao Tse-tung's wife Jiang Qing) but opposed many of Deng's reforms. General Wei lost his position as chief political commissar of the People's Liberation Army last year, although he retains his Politburo seat.
Today General Wei has no formal links with Guangxi. Even his seat in the National People's Congress, China's legislature, has been shifted from Guangxi to Henan on the grounds that he served at one time as a brigade commander in that province.
Factional fighting in Guangxi was particularly intense during the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and its aftereffects still remain to be healed, Mr. Rao said.
An article in his newspaper July 6 told of a meeting of a provincewide group specifically charged with solving problems arising from the Cultural Revolution, especially the rehabilitation of people falsely accused and the punishment of remnants of the ''gang of four'' or their followers ''who severely broke law and discipline.''
The meeting was flooded with letters and personal appeals from citizens complaining of this or that individual who allegedly behaved illegally during the Cultural Revolution but who still remains in power.
One of the biggest problems, Mr. Rao said, was that during the Cultural Revolution many people completely lost their respect for law. Since the fall of the ''gang of four,'' a new constitution emphasizing the rule of law rather than of persons has been passed and normality restored to civil and criminal codes. But at the local level, Rao said, there still were party leaders who either behaved feudalistically or took a lax attitude toward the illegal actions of their colleagues or subordinates.
As the party newspaper, the Guangxi Daily will publish reports of such behavior only if it ''benefits the party and benefits the masses,'' Rao said. He told of a cadreman in the commerce department of one of Guangxi's counties who was accused of illegally occupying more housing than he was entitled to. This is an almost universal complaint. The newspaper sent a report to investigate, and found the accusation to be true. But the country party committee asked that it be allowed to settle the matter quietly, without publicity.
In this case, the editor of the newspaper decided that the interests of the party and public would be served better by disclosure than by silence, and exposed the cadre's wrongdoing. The implication was that, on more sensitive issues, the decision could have gone the other way.
Although peace and stability in the region had improved, Rao said, there some sense of insecurity remained because respect for law had not yet been fully established. In some counties, the situation was better than in others. Insecurity also arose from the fact that many people falsely accused during the Cultural Revolution have not yet been cleared.
On the economic front, especially in agriculture, there had been steady progress in recent years, even before this year's change of leaders, Rao said. A visit to the countryside outside Nanning supported this view. A family of four - father, mother, and teen-aged son and daughter - were cutting rice and threshing it when a group of journalists on a picture-taking expedition passed by.
The father, Zhou Qixiu, a Zhuang, said that in his area the so-called ''responsibility'' system, returning fields from communal to individual and family care, had been practiced since 1982. His family's income from 11/3 acres of rice and half an acre of other crops including pineapple was now 4,000 renminbi, or about $2,000 a year, he said. Under the old system he had barely managed to make 300 renminbi ($150) a year. ''Of course, I prefer the new system ,'' he said.