China Without Deng: US Debates Scenarios
A Pentagon report and rumors on Deng's health stir specialists to speculate on whether China will continue its capitalist path -- and under whom?
MIXED reports on the health of nonagenarian Deng Xiaoping has China watchers speculating widely on what will become of the world's most populated nation after he leaves the scene.Skip to next paragraph
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Many experts agree that in the short run the Asian giant will continue economic reforms and tight political control. But many also question Beijing's long-term central authority -- and the impact this will have on everything from social problems to foreign policy.
Winston Lord, United States assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, recently touched on an underlying problem that increasingly has the attention of China watchers here, both inside and outside the Clinton administration.
''There's no question,'' Mr. Lord said, ''that we are having some difficult problems in certain areas which may be partly related to the domestic political situation in China.''
Anticipating a transition
The ''situation'' in question is the transition China anticipates with the passing of its last major revolutionary leader. While Mr. Deng no longer holds any formal positions, his iron-clad authority has held potential succession squabbles under control.
Many Sinologists here expect China's immediate agenda to continue along current lines. ''As there is a broad consensus [within the Chinese leadership] in favor of a smooth transition, I would foresee a period of maybe three years in which there will be the normal process of political competition,'' says Ron Montaperto of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
But while the Chinese agenda may not change in the short term, the longer-term picture is murkier. ''China is up for grabs once Deng passes away,'' stated a group of China specialists in a recent report sponsored by the Department of Defense. ''There is no apparent internal balance of political forces, and Deng's death will create a political vacuum for both conservatives and reformers to move in.''
A remarkable leader
Deng's extraordinary stature has steadied a turbulent China more than once. Possessing renowned political and administrative skills, he helped stabilize it after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, only to be purged by Mao Zedong. After his rehabilitation, he successfully pushed China on to a course of dramatic economic modernization.
But Deng's concentrated power has also created the potential for considerable instability after his departure. His appointed successor, President and Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, is widely viewed as politically weak and too beholden to the military. Without the restraining influence of Deng's patronage, it is unclear how long Mr. Jiang's relatively unchallenged stature as ''first among equals'' will last.
Whoever succeeds Deng faces numerous social and economic problems -- and the lack of institutions to deal formally with them. As a result, says Thomas Christensen, professor of government at Cornell University, New York, ''Certain central policies that are crucial to economic and social stability will be harder to control. They [Beijing] will have a harder time doing things they already find difficult such as controlling inflation, guaranteeing a social safety net, and securing taxes for the central government.''
Many Sinologists predict that at minimum, China's response to such challenges may include a devolution of power from the center to the provinces.