Why China Can Buck Global Trends

The `Chinese amnesia' - a propensity to forget past tyrannies - helps leaders maintain control

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUBLIC response to ``Red Lantern,'' a Peking Opera production, reveals why China is likely in 1991 to remain frozen in repression as other socialist countries warm to liberal freedoms. The hero of the opera, in a fervent farewell to the communist revolution, declares that the bond uniting workers is even stronger than ties among family.

As the underground communist agent is hustled away to martyrdom, the sell-out audience at the China Peking Opera House explodes in shouting and clapping.

The political message for 1991 in ``Red Lantern'' appears not on stage with the hero, an icon of the fanatical Cultural Revolution, but in the audience.

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The cheers for the hero show that many Chinese can easily set aside memories of their suffering during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China's most traumatic period under communist rule, say operagoers and members of the ``Red Lantern'' cast.

The ovation reveals one of the strongest forces for continued communist repression in China in 1991: the mass, deliberate forgetting of past tyranny.

Widespread denial of past injustice reinforces efforts by the leadership to renew stifling political and economic controls. And it undercuts advocates of the reforms that could head off eventual economic turmoil and political unrest, say dissidents and Western diplomats.

Privately, Beijing residents are quick to denounce China's leadership. But they shrink from public protest, convinced that it is futile and ultimately self-destructive.

As its citizens bury their resentment and memories of suffering, China is forgetting lessons from the past that could help guide its next struggle for liberal reform, dissidents say.

Exiled dissident Fang Lizhi called this tendency ``the Chinese amnesia'' in a magazine article last year.

Dr. Fang's phrase implies that the denial of history is something suffered rather than willed by Chinese. But many Chinese who apparently know the truth accept official distortions of the past.

``Chinese people have very short memories about politics,'' says a scientist who asked that his name not be printed. ``They think it's in their best interests to put their political suffering behind them and just think about their own basic livelihood.''

The scientist was dismissed from a research job for having joined the pro-democracy movement.

The popular resignation has left the political initiative securely in the hands of the conservative leadership. Indeed, Beijing residents widely seem to expect that political reform will only come ``from above'' after the Old Guard, by passing on, clears the way for an enlightened leader.

The political inertia caused by ``the Chinese amnesia'' is evident at Beijing University, a spawning ground for the 1989 protests and earlier progressive movements.

University officials have isolated the sophomore class to ensure that independent-minded upperclassmen don't unravel the sophomores' political indoctrination from a year at military camp.

Officials hope that when all activists have graduated and today's sophomores are seniors, the university will be completely compliant, according to upperclassmen.

``Activism? I've never thought it to be a possibility,'' says a sophomore after several of her classmates declined to be interviewed.

``The military training has closed our minds and separated us from one another - that's why the other students don't want to talk,'' the sophomore said on condition of anonymity.

Outside the campus, citizens who in May 1989 took to the streets by the thousands to support student hunger strikers express resignation and indifference over the trials of protest leaders. Several demonstrators are expected to face closed trials this month for ``counterrevolutionary crimes.''

``Many people believe that the activists just set themselves up for trouble - that their movement was useless - so they pity them but don't sympathize with them,'' says an engineer who asked that his name not be printed.

Beijing has helped induce the mass forgetting of the past with economic policy that rewards passivity with cash.

Reversing a policy of strict austerity, Beijing in the first 11 months of 1990 provided state enterprises with a record $47.8 billion in loans. The huge dole highlights how Beijing and state enterprises are bound in what could be called a ``partnership-in-stagnation.''

Beijing allows one in three state-owned enterprises to operate at a loss and shields that entire sector against competition.

In return for Beijing's largesse, the factories sustain the livelihood of more than 90 million urban workers, a group leaders view as the keystone to social stability.

Beijing must come to recognize that subsidies threaten to bloat the budget deficit and ruin state control over the economy, say Chinese economists.

``The leadership is buying stability by subsidizing state enterprises, but someday it won't have the money to do so; it is setting China up for economic turmoil,'' says an economist jailed for several months for supporting the pro-democracy movement.

Sun Xuewen is one of many Chinese economists who in recent decades have watched with dismay as Beijing repeatedly used the administrative tools of state socialism to fling the economy from slump to inflationary burnout. The rate of inflation increased from 3 percent annually earlier this year to 5.3 percent annually in November.

``The business cycle in China is different than in the West,'' says Mr. Sun from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ``The Western cycle is moved by market forces; in China, it is determined by the mistakes of the leadership.''

Both Chinese and foreign economists have long urged Beijing to allow supply and demand rather than bureaucrats to guide the economy. Such market reforms would probably trigger bankruptcies and layoffs, they say. The measures are anathema to a leadership that is intent on holding onto power.

At least until the spring, urban Chinese will probably not be compelled to consider the dangers of the economy's structural problems, economists say.

Like last year, Beijing will probably give workers large bonuses to ensure that they sit down on Feb. 15 to tables piled high with victuals for the Chinese New Year. But economists and Western diplomats say the New Year's sop signifies that Beijing lacks the insight and courage to advance market-oriented economic reforms that, while provoking immediate discontent, would promote lasting growth and prosperity.

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