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Watershed year for Deng's reforms. Deng Xiaoping has set China on a problematic but promising course. The Chinese are watching to see if he can make his reforms stick. In a series, the Monitor looks at this crucial time for China.

By Julian BaumStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1986


In the seven fat years since Deng Xiaoping took control, Chinese society has begun to hum. Incomes are up, people are consuming instead of merely producing, and a modern mass culture is trying to emerge outside the auspices of the Communist Party.

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The lists of best-selling consumer items have changed. The old ``four things that go round'' (bicycles, electric fans, wrist watches, and sewing machines) have been replaced by the ``eight new big things'' (color televisions, cameras, cassette tape recorders, motorcycles, air conditioners, washing machines, refrigerators, and video machines).

On the political side, the government is relying less on coercion and indoctrination and more on reason and the self-interest of the Chinese people to implement policy.

Nevertheless, there are anxieties over whether the current state of affairs and the promises for a better life will continue.

In 1986, people are commenting on the gap between the spirit of the government's policies and actual bureaucratic practice. Some people are now openly worried that the party's promises for a better future won't survive without revisions.

Contrary to what they believed was the spirit of Deng's reforms, they observe that the ideologues are tightening their guardianship over arts and culture; the central authorities have actually strengthened -- rather than loosened -- their control over the economy; and China's door to the outside world, propped open since the late 1970s, could close again.

These latest shifts in the political winds follow the wrenching experiences of the past year:

An official inflation rate of 9 percent, where there was virtually no inflation from 1949 until the late 1970s.

The squandering by government agencies and illicit importers of much-needed foreign exchange on consumer goods.

The effects of foreign influences on a once-closed culture.

Dashed expectations about the readiness of the party's lower echelons to take on more responsibility.

The durability of the ``iron rice bowl'' (the employment-welfare system in which everyone is provided for regardless of his productivity).

The disruptive impacts of material inequality.

And the growing problem of corruption, which could prove to be the Achilles' heel of the whole reform program.

After decades of promoting a system of ethics based on the virtues of socialism and shared scarcity, the authorities are now confronted with how to guide Chinese behavior under conditions of capitalist-style prosperity. Mao Tse-tung once worried that a party secretary could be bought for a few packs of cigarettes. That sort of corruption, like so many things, has seen some inflation of late.

``It used to be that a banquet or other simple amenities could close a deal with state officials and enterprise managers, but now the price of catering to Chinese business partners is higher,'' said one business analyst from Hong Kong. ``They suggest expensive benefits, such as cars for their companies or an inspection trip to one of the special economic zones or Hong Kong,'' he said.

The party's recent denunciations of extravagance in business affairs has had some effect, at least in one case: Recently, a manager in Canton refused to go to Hong Kong for a meeting with his joint-venture partner unless his factory's party cadre accompanied him. The party official had nothing to do with the business venture, but he would have been insurance against accusations of wrong-doing. The manager didn't attend the meeting.

There are also basic questions of economic policy.

In 1985, China's economy raced along at almost three times the speed the government had intended. Amidst the usual enthusiasm for exceeding state production targets, Premier Zhao Ziyang has given stern warnings about the dangers ahead if, under the economic plan now being drafted for 1986-1990, economic growth isn't brought under control.

There are few Chinese who would actually come out against Deng's reforms, which have fueled the rapid economic growth, but many sympathize with those members of the leadership who have to confront the problem of implementating the reforms. The means of solving the problem appear to involve more bureaucratic controls on society, not less.

China's traditional ambitions for itself include visions of a moral and social order that have tended to clash with the liberal ideas and institutions of the West. These ambitions also clash with the development of a society free of politicized morality, a goal some say has been encouraged by the pragmatic ``thought'' of China's master strategist, Deng Xiaoping.

``Look toward the future and seek truth from facts,'' reads one slogan at a busy intersection in central Peking. ``Seek truth from facts'' is a saying gleaned from Mao's prolific writings, but it is a slogan used by Deng and his fellow reformers to endorse an economic pragmatism to which Mao never espoused.