BY far the most interesting question about today's world is why Deng Xiaoping in China is so much more successful than Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in setting his country down the road to reform and modernism. There are many elements in the explanation, but four are of particular importance - the peoples, the age of the two revolutions, the Mao Tse-tung factor, and attitudes toward peasants. Some experts think the last is the most important of all.
Let us take first the people. The Chinese have the oldest continuous civilization in the world. Its people have learned much from their history. They are hardworking, and adaptable to change. Mr. Deng himself is a typical Chinese in that he is a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
Chinese seldom sit up late of the night arguing over the finer points of Marxist ideology. The Russians do. Their history is steeped in ideological argument. They can agonize even today over the conflicts between Leninism and Trotskyism. Trotsky is still forbidden to Soviet historians. He is a nonperson.
The Chinese are too busy with the problems of how to modernize their country to have much time for introspection. Like Deng himself, they don't care what is the color of the cat, so long as it catches mice.
Then turn to the respective ages of the two systems. The Russian system is 70 years old, the Chinese is only 37 years old.
Add the Mao Tse-tung factor to the difference in age. Mao's ``Great Cultural Revolution'' broke up the Chinese communist system as it was settling into a fixed mold. The party hierarchy was turned on its head. Many of the ancients, including ideologues, were killed.
There were purges enough through the history of the communist era in Russia, but nothing as upsetting to the system as the Maoist shaking in China. Russia is ruled by a bureaucracy which has been building itself for 70 years. A whole class of the privileged has arisen. It is today a class-structured society in which the privileged can send their children to the best universities and on into government or party service. The masses live outside the system, enjoy none of the privileges, see their children relegated to inferior schools and limited career opportunities. It is anything but a classless society.
Thanks to Mao and the havoc of his Cultural Revolution, China is less class ridden. Merit tends to count. Ability is more important than party ancestry. Russia is managed by a class structure in its third generation. China is being managed by survivors of both the original revolution and of Mao's second revolution. It took a remarkable agility to be a survivor of those events. Heredity has not yet had time to work. The survivors tend to be pragmatists. They had to be to survive.
Finally, the roots of the two communist parties were different. Lenin and Stalin built their parties on urban factory workers. The peasantry was regarded as the enemy. Stalin liquidated literally millions of peasants during his campaign of forced collectivization. Soviet agriculture has never recovered.
What incentive does a Russian factory worker have if harder work does not translate into more and better food?
Mao built the Chinese Communist Party on the peasants. True, he liquidated the large landholders. But the party has always given more thought to the welfare of the peasant than ever happened in Stalin's Russia. And when Deng launched his reform movement he launched it first on the farms. He broke up the collectives, let the farmer have land for his own use, and let him sell much of the crop at market prices.
All over China today the more successful farmers are building neat little two- or even three-story brick houses, buying trucks and tractors, and making money. That means that when the Chinese factory worker is allowed to earn more money by working harder, he can buy more food with his earnings. Deng got his priorities right. Gorbachev has not yet been able to unleash the Russian farmer. There are food queues all over Russia, none in China.
Russia once exported food. China once imported food. Today Russia still imports food. China is virtually self-sustaining.