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Liberals and Hard-Liners Face Off

CHINA'S BACK-ROOM POWER STRUGGLE

By Melissa RobertsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 1989



BEIJING

THE battle for control of the future direction of China is moving off the streets and into the back rooms as government and Army factions jockey for position. Reports in the official Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, as well as other organs of the usually tightly controlled government media, shed some light on the existence of the back-room power struggle.

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China's leaders, even in the calmest of times, are extremely secretive. But newspapers and television are offering some hints about the battle for control of the country and its direction for the next decade.

Observers say the struggle between liberals and conservatives within the framework of the communist system is being reflected in the vacillations of the media.

In the brief days of moderate Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's ascendancy during the this month's Sino-Soviet summit and early days of the student dispute, Bejing's media blossomed. Television and newspapers competed with hard-hitting reports similar to those in the Western press.

The sudden emergence of Premier Li Peng saw an equally sudden return to strict adherence to the official line, while factions compete for control of the front page with stories supporting opposite sides.

This week a hard-line editorial on the Army's determination to act shared the front page of the People's Daily with a story condemning Stalin's use of the Army to put down the people earlier this century in the Soviet Union.

Chinese journalists, many of whom have demonstrated with the students for increased press freedom, say seven senior military figures, headed by former Defense Minister Zhang Aiping, had petitioned the government to end martial law, underscoring the divisions in the Army.

Noticeably absent in the media has been any new official announcement by Mr. Li on governmental matters since his rapid rise to power at the end of last week and his decree Saturday of martial law. According to diplomats, this indicates Li's grip on power is tentative.

``The balance seems to be swinging in the debate over the leadership,'' a Western diplomat says. ``It's very hard to judge precisely, but it seems very difficult for Li to go on this way.''

The diplomat sees Li's political survival in doubt while he displays indecision and allows the people to control the city in defiance of his decree. And yet a hard crackdown could make him so unpopular he would be forced to resign.

The opposing faction in the leadership seems more clearly under the control of Mr. Zhao. Rumors that Zhao had been forced from office last week now have him taking sick leave to distance himself from the government's decision to send in the troops. While Chinese journalists see a return of Zhao as imminent, the official line is equivocal.

``I cannot tell you whether Zhao Ziyang is or is not general secretary of the Communist Party,'' a party official said.

Even the students seem to be splitting into factions. Some are calling for an end to demonstrations in the face of troops and the new hard-line leadership lineup.

Others are all for pressing on to try to prevent the conservatives digging in. While the leaders form battle lines between each other, tensions in the city are easing.

Fewer students and workers are demonstrating in the streets, while roadblocks have been eased to allow some normal traffic to resume. The subway and most of the busses are still halted, but some trucks bringing in essential supplies of food and gasoline are making their way into the capital.

According to wire reports, more than 100,000 protesters marched past the defaced portrait of China's founder, Mao Zedong, in Tiananmen Square Tuesday, proclaiming Li ``an enemy of the people.'' They demanded an end to martial law.

According to the People's Daily, some of the troops that have been camped on the outskirts of Beijing are falling back. Many here expected the worst when Li declared martial law. But despite the fears of Beijing's citizens, soldiers did not move in to sweep Tiananmen Square of rebellious protesters.

The Army units have been tied down by crowds of protesters. Although the mood has been casual at the road blocks set up by students along the edges of the city to keep soldiers at bay, nerves are starting to fray.

In one isolated incident in the early hours of yesterday, students were injured in a scuffle with soldiers. Chinese witnesses say troops attacked the young people manning a road block when soldiers were barred from entering their barracks.

Conditions are difficult for the thousands of young soldiers waiting on the edge of town. They have been forced to endure heat, uncertainty, and the scorn of students very much like themselves.

The People's Daily quotes one soldier as saying ``We are the soldiers of the people and will never suppress the people.''

But one diplomat cautioned that the antigovernment protesters were not necessarily being ceded control of the city. He said the troops were pulling back, not withdrawing. He said soldiers may be replaced by fresh troops.