Deng Struggles To Set Reform Back on Track
ONE day last month while touring China's prosperous south to promote his market-oriented reforms, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping came upon a jade tree in a lush botanical garden.Skip to next paragraph
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To the cheers of his entourage, Mr. Deng reached out and felt the smooth bark of the tree, believed to bring riches to whoever touches it.
The gesture symbolizes a major, if simplistic, tenet of Dengism: Unabashedly encouraging 1.1 billion Chinese to become rich is the best way to modernize China and sustain Communist Party rule.
Nearly three years after the June 4, 1989 massacre of protesters in Beijing unleashed a conservative backlash, Deng is campaigning hard to revive reforms at this year's pivotal 14th party congress.
"Reform and opening are the only way out. Not reforming is a dead end," Deng was quoted as saying in south China. Opposition, he said, will not be tolerated.
Echoing Deng, Chinese leaders and the state-run media are calling for "urgent" reform, an end to ideological "dogmatism," and even the development of "a capitalist economy ... as a useful supplement to the socialist economy."
Yet even if Deng manages to overcome strong opposition and put economic reforms back on track, his effort may be too little, too late, Beijing-based diplomats and scholars say.
Deng's vision of China's modernization is marred, they say, by a fundamental contradiction: A market-driven economy is ultimately incompatible with Marxism and harsh political control. According to Deng, both are needed to keep the Communist Party in power.
The dilemma is perpetuated by the refusal of Deng and a handful of other revolutionary veterans to give up power. A weak successor generation will find it harder to break with the old guard's legacy, they say.
"There is a basic contradiction between the goals of economic construction and those of political control. But the party will continue to pursue this contradiction to try to stay in power," an Asian diplomat says.
With no immediate alternative to the Communist Party, China will probably undergo several years of political stagnation, diplomats and scholars say.
Chinese are unlikely to rise up if the current regime can sustain economic growth. Instead, central authority will slowly erode as provincial officials, wealthy private businessmen, and other groups empowered by reform disregard Beijing's dictates, they say.
"There is no clear policy that the leadership can follow to restore its control over wayward provinces and regions," a Western diplomat says.
Deng's tour last month of China's thriving Guangdong Province illustrates both the achievements and contradictions of his 14-year-old rule, as well as the emerging succession crisis.
Nowhere in China has Deng seemed to have a Midas touch more than along the booming southern coast of Guangdong. The brash Cantonese have risen from backwardness to become China's richest citizens since 1980, when Beijing began dismantling Mao Zedong's communes and reviving family farming and private enterprise.
Despite clear successes, uncertainty continues to overshadow the reforms.
Deng's support for Marxist precepts like state ownership puts reform on a weak theoretical footing. Reform is a blind, trial-and-error process, like "groping for stones while crossing a river," Deng says.
As a result, vital experiments with stock markets, price deregulation, and bankruptcy are vulnerable to attack by party ideologues.
Similarly, Deng's backing for one-party dictatorship has undermined efforts to build a less corrupt and more efficient system of rule by law. Without such institutional guarantees, Chinese can neither fully trust the free market nor adequately protect their new, hard-won wealth.
All Deng can do to assure Chinese that his reforms endure is to personally reiterate his policies, as he did in Guangdong last month. Yet even this gesture underscores a weakness of his regime: "Men rule, not the law," as the Chinese saying goes.