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Calls for a New Despotism in China. `Young Turks' seek a strong man to push economic reform and usher in democracy. DEMOCRACY FROM IRON-FISTED RULE?

By James L. Tyson and Ann Scott TysonStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1989


ALARMED by mounting instability, maverick members of China's Communist Party are calling for a return to iron-fisted rule as the only way to advance market reforms and achieve democracy. These young theorists promote a ``new authoritarianism'' under reform-minded Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang. They say only an all-powerful leader can end China's economic crisis and deliver long-promised prosperity and freedom.

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Mr. Zhao, general secretary of the party, tacitly supports the call to elevate him over conservative rivals who have exploited economic turmoil to seize his day-to-day powers and halt his critical reforms, the theorists say.

Fiercely debated in official publications, the proposal for autocratic rule represents a drastic effort to end a crisis of credibility that is undermining party power. It is an extreme antidote for the rampant official corruption and 30 percent inflation that have fueled widespread popular discontent. (Cynicism and pragmatism underlie call for enlightened despotism, Page 3.)

``There is great popular resentment against the state for its having lost control, and it was very evident at the end of last year that the state faces a credibility crisis,'' says Wu Guoguang, a commentator for the party newspaper People's Daily and a proponent of new authoritarianism.

``This crisis means big trouble for reform because we can only advance reform by relying on the state and party - under these circumstances we must strengthen the authority of the party and state,'' Mr. Wu says.

The advocates of new authoritarianism label liberal Chinese intellectuals as utopians for believing that democracy is a critical precondition for modernization. They point to South Korea and Taiwan and argue that autocratic regimes with vibrant market economies will eventually evolve toward democracy.

Surveying socialist countries, they note how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has used unrivaled power over the Communist Party and state to enact profound political reforms.

Beijing, they say, must quickly name an heir-apparent - like Zhao - who would take charge of the waning political and military powers of elder statesman Deng Xiaoping and prevent a potentially disastrous succession crisis.

The current economic plight makes the need to strengthen Zhao all the more urgent, they argue. Since inflation sparked panic buying and bank runs in August, Zhao's conservative opponents have launched an economic retrenchment, restoring many state planning methods scrapped by Zhao and Mr. Deng.

The ``young Turks'' promoting Zhao threaten these conservatives. Hardline party members oppose the transfer of power to a strong man and resist sweeping market reforms that would weaken their bureaucratic privileges.

Liberal dissidents also harshly criticize new authoritarianism, fearing it would usher in a return of the personality cult and abusive, one-man rule that characterized the Mao era. ``New authoritarianism is very dangerous, especially if it is connected with the idea of nationalism or gains the support of the military,'' says Su Shaozhi, a theorist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.