China party leaders stir debate on freedom of dissent. Intellectuals, though skeptical, encouraged by party openness

A Chinese literary scholar, Liu Zaifu, was criticized earlier this year for contradicting some of Mao Tse-tung's views on the subordination of art and literature to politics. But he was publicly defended by leading officials in the Communist Party as well as by his immediate superior, Hu Sheng, President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A young philosopher, Song Longxiang, was criticized by senior party members for advocating that Chinese economists should learn from Western economic theories and methods.

But he was publicly defended by the chief of the party's propaganda department, Zhu Houze, and other top theorists.

These two controversial cases have been the focus of attention in recent months in discussions about the need for more intellectual freedom if China is to make rapid strides in science and other intellectual fields. The dialogue has been carried out in official symposiums and in the Chinese press, which has published long and often rambling commentaries by prominent writers freshly setting out the standards of intellectual tolerance.

The controversies over Liu Zaifu and Song Longxiang so far have not brought them serious trouble. Rather, both have been catapulted into benign prominence.

This is unlike two years ago, for instance, when a respected deputy editor of the People's Daily, Wang Ruoshui, lost his job for crossing ideological swords with senior party leader Hu Qiaomu over the issue of humanism. Mr. Wang remains in professional limbo.

Reportedly, Politburo member Hu is also at the center of the Liu and Song criticisms. But Liu continues in his post as director of the Institute of Literature, and Song as a teacher at Nanking University.

Yu Guangyuan, a respected senior economist, wrote in a Shanghai newspaper that he did not agree with all the points in the article by Song, whose pen name is Ma Ding. But he argued it was necessary for economists to concern themselves with his heterogenous point of view.

``Before discussing whether Ma Ding's article is good or bad,'' Mr. Yu wrote, ``we must first make a clear and unequivocal judgment on whether such an article should be allowed to be published in the newspapers.''

Mr. Yu then defended the decision by several prominent publications to reprint the article against criticism by other commentators.

Such discourse clearly has been encouraged by party leaders to show that the party has adopted -- in earnest this time -- Mao's short-lived policy of tolerating divergent opinions, both inside and outside the nation's dominant, ruling organization.

It has been 30 years since the phrase ``let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend'' marked the blossoming, under Mao's leadership, of opinions and even political dissent among Chinese intellectuals.

That historic policy of 1956 was followed the next year by a crackdown, known as the ``anti-rightist'' campaign, in which hundreds of people were executed and hundreds of thousands were banished to labor camps. Many of China's present intellectuals suffered grievously during that time and later during a period of even more sweeping intolerance, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

As with the memory of the founder of the People's Republic himself, for some writers, scholars, and scientists, there is much ambiguity in the party's recalling the so-called ``double hundred'' slogan to underwrite its latest emphasis on more intellectual freedom.

A report in Hong Kong's daily Ming Pao on a recent Shanghai seminar on cultural policy summed up the delegates' views this way: ``In the past decades, we experienced many storms and only saw that there were merely two `schools'' [Marxist and non-Marxist] rather than a hundred `schools,' and only one `flower' rather than a hundred `flowers,' and that the `double hundred principle' was merely a strategem for `luring the snakes out of their caves.' ''

Despite continuing and quite understandable skepticism about present policies, many intellectuals are greatly encouraged by the openness of some present senior party leaders, especially Hu Qili and Zhu Houze. Both are members of the so-called ``third tier'' of leadership who are slated to take over from their superiors and lead China into the 21st century.

Remarkably, commented one writer, such party officials and some established intellectuals have risen to defend individuals such as Liu and Song and their right to advocate views diverging from orthodoxy. This was something rare in the past, they say. It brings confidence in the party's promises for greater freedom for writers, artists, and academic researchers who are arguing the need to be free of politics and political labels if they are to achieve the kind of breakthroughs China's modernization efforts require.

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