In China, Communist Ideology Is Dead, but Party Shell Lives On

Chinese see party as only assurance of public order and rising prosperity

IDEOLOGICALLY, the former newspaper editor admits, communism in China is dead. But the party lives on, he says, not because Chinese like the aging Communist leadership, but because there is no substitute.

``China is culturally different from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Even though the beliefs are gone, the shell is still there, because no one is willing to take the lead in damaging the shell,'' says the editor, who lost his job for supporting political protests in 1989. ``No one will touch the shell because it is already empty. It will collapse by itself.''

In today's China, Marxism-Leninism may be passe. But no one is betting on an imminent demise of the ideologically bankrupt Communist Party.

Despite economic liberalization, which has opened China to foreign investment and trade and undermined the command economy, the party continues to attract membership among young and old, according to official reports.

In 1992, membership rose almost 5 percent to 52 million members as applications, largely from the rural peasantry rather than urbanites, have jumped sharply in the past two years. Despite years of political oppression under the Communists, Chinese still regard the party as the only source of public order and, in recent years, of prosperity, international stature, and peace.

Chinese analysts say that many people worry about a possible cutoff of economic reforms, which have dramatically raised living standards, and are uneasy about the imminent leadership transition that will follow the death of ailing supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

Although many Chinese resent Mr. Deng and the ruling Communists for the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests four years ago, they view the party as the only force able to shepherd the country in its transition to capitalism.

For the time being, the party also remains in control of patronage and advancement in China's vast welfare state, which many Chinese workers are afraid to jettison for the uncertainties of the marketplace.

``Despite all the propaganda about the market economy, the government still retains a lot of control over people's lives. And, conditioned all these years in the ways of the command economy, many people don't want to give it up,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

``I don't like Deng, but I hope he lives as long as possible to give the reform and opening to the outside world more time to take root,'' says a university business professor in Beijing.

Although authoritarianism seems entrenched for now, Chinese analysts say, that hardly means that all is well for China's leaders. Pushing the limits of their autonomy, regional leaders have balked at central government efforts to rein in speculative loans and real estate developments and central attempts to collect more tax revenues from provinces and localities.

The party also grapples with a wave of corruption that is unprecedented in more than four decades of rule and erodes its once widespread grass-roots support.

In August, President and Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin declared war on corruption, setting off a national investigation and crackdown on corrupt local leaders and a series of executions. Of late, though, under pressure from influential provincial leaders whose support is crucial to the center, Beijing has backed off in its crusade, Western diplomats say.

Ultimately, party leaders will have to face the potentially explosive issue of how to handle the legacy of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, when hundreds of Chinese were massacred on the streets of Beijing.

One signal of a party shift over Tiananmen could come with a decision on the future of Prime Minister Li Peng, who was sidelined with a heart attack this year.

``The only reason Li Peng stays is because he is regarded as a symbol and had a direct hand in June 4. If he is removed, people will know that the party is addressing the issue of June 4. And that will set off a chain reaction,'' a Chinese political observer says.

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