The Roots of China's `New Authoritarianism'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DISILLUSIONED by the failure of pro-democracy movements in China, young advocates of ``new authoritarianism'' have embraced another extreme: enlightened despotism under a Communist Party strong man. (Story, P. 1.) ``Without authority, the healthy development of liberty is impossible,'' writes Wu Jiaxiang, a researcher at the party's Political Reform Institute in Beijing.

``We want to turn democracy from something painted on banners to something concrete,'' says Wu Guoguang, a commentator for the party newspaper People's Daily and supporter of new authoritarianism. ``Today young Chinese scholars are no longer simply demanding democracy. They are emphasizing where democracy will come from.''

The hardheaded outlook of Mr. Wu and others partly reflects a profound loss of faith in the ability of democratic activists to promote individual liberties in China.

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As students in the late 1970s and early '80s, they saw Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping crush the budding ``Democracy Wall'' movement, a wave of public wall posters and speeches against autocracy, and throw its most prominent dissidents in jail. Again in 1983, they watched party ideologues harass dozens of liberal intellectuals in a crackdown on ``spiritual pollution.''

Finally, in late 1986 they witnessed the suppression of nationwide student protests for democracy and the subsequent ousting of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, considered one of China's most enlightened leaders.

That year, the earliest advocates of new authoritarianism emerged in Shanghai. In a clear split with China's dissident intellectuals, they argued that clamoring for rights would only provoke a conservative backlash and hinder progress toward a more open political regime.

``Some people who seek very beautiful ideals only lead themselves to hell,'' says one Beijing theorist. ``Democracy is like a far-off glass of water. It can't quench our current thirst.''

As cynicism over democratic activism spread, China entered a phase of severe economic and political dislocation. The haphazard adoption of economic reforms disrupted state-planning mechanisms, fueled corruption and inflation, and saw power dispersed from Beijing to the provinces. Amid the mounting sense of crisis, the young theorists seized on authoritarian political models as the only way to strengthen state power, ensure the smooth continuation of free-market reforms and lay a firm foundation for democracy.

``China is in a mess,'' says the Beijing theorist. ``There is utter confusion in the relationships among the party, government, enterprises, and individuals. We must urgently put things back on track.''

Liberal Chinese intellectuals scoff at advocates of new authoritarianism for pinning their hopes on a benevolent despot. ``They say `if only there is a good leader, things will be all right,''' says Su Shaozhi, a prominent liberal.

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