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China searches for new ways to fill over a billion rice bowls

By Takashi OkaStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1983


When foreign visitors ask Deng Xiaoping how long he expects the economic and political reforms he has inaugurated to last, China's senior leader usually chuckles and says he is not surprised at the question.

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''Over and over again, Chinese ask the same thing,'' he says.

Then Mr. Deng, salty and gravelly-voiced as ever, explains why he believes that despite China's past record of zigs and zags in policy, the economic incentives and opening to the West identified with his name will endure.

Basically, Deng says, these reforms respond to the demands of the vast majority of China's more than 1 billion people after the ultraleftist anarchy of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). What he does not say is that, in the years when Mao Tse-tung was alive, the prestige and power of the founder of the People's Republic were so great that he could repeatedly override the popular desire for stability and predictability with frenzied revolutionary campaigns. Mao's ego might be satisfied thereby, and those of the ''gang of four,'' but no rice bowls were filled.

Seven years have passed since Mao's death and the arrest of the ''gang of four'' headed by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing. Deng was out of power at the time of the arrest, and it has taken him most of these seven years, first to win and wield power, then to eliminate or neutralize opponents of his reforms like former Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng.

At various moments during these years, Western observers believed Deng had suffered setbacks and was being forced to make compromises.

But the recent National People's Congress showed that, step by step, sometimes bold, sometimes cautious, Deng and his associates have advanced toward their goals. These are first of all to bring normalcy and the rule of law in party and government, and second to mobilize all the nation's energies to achieve the task of economic modernization within this century.

Today, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, China has a president, Li Xiannian; a vice-president, Ulanfu; and a National People's Congress with expanded constitutional powers and headed by an active chairman, Peng Zhen. Deng himself is chairman of the Central Military Commission. These are all government positions with five-year terms.

In short, after a period of transition following the pseudo-revolutionary structures of the Cultural Revolution, China is again a normal state with a normal constitution and normal structures of government. The Communist Party rules, but within the framework of law.

There is endless argument, privately among Chinese and publicly among foreign friends and foes, as to whether Deng and his principal associates - General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang - can achieve their goal of economic modernization while retaining what they insist they will never abandon: the dictatorship of the Communist Party and the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist road to ''socialism'' - in other words, communism.

That is a question that vitally interests the United States, Japan, and other Western powers basically wishing well to China's modernization plans and expecting to benefit thereby. There is simply no precedent for modernization on a scale as vast as that of China, with its 200 million city dwellers and its 800 million peasants. Many observers fear that as contradictions grow between the need for giving enterprises and regions greater freedom of action and the continued demand for central planning, there may be great temptation to return to the Stalinist model of the 1950s.

China's planners know the Stalinist model was inefficient and wasteful, but they also know that it does enable the central authorities to retain unquestioned control.

Take bicycles. Last year, according to the state statistical bureau, 24.6 million bicycles were produced, or 38 percent more than in 1981. How many of them were in fact usable? The most popular brands are Phoenix and Everlasting from Shanghai and Flying Pigeon from Tianjin. These enjoy nationwide reputations for durability and good looks.

But when decentralization first got under way, each province and city in China rushed into making bicycles, along with other light industrial goods. The consumer was assailed with a plethora of unfamiliar brand names. Because the price of bicycles, along with the price of most everything else, is controlled by Peking, new, unfamiliar brands could not compete with established brands by offering cheaper prices, except within a very limited range and even then often under the counter. Nor could the much-desired Phoenix or Flying Pigeon brands charge more, although customers would gladly have paid premium prices.