Pullback in Peking

One of the more heartening developments in the past four years has been the liberalization taking place in the People's Republic of China. The changes away from dogmatic Maoism toward modern-day pragmatism have both amazed and pleased a watching world. It is therefore disturbing to read reports that China is retreating from this course and perhaps is headed for another period of turbulance. We trust this is not so. Given the many twists and turns of policy in that communist land, however, it is not altogether surprising that the pendulum of reform has not yet come to rest.

The problem for China's well-wishers abroad will be to maintain their own sense of balance and not permit emotions to swing from a state of euphoria on the one hand to feelings of foreboding on the other. The People's Republic has daunting problems and, as its leaders introduce new ways, there is bound to be some pushing and hauling.

Thus, after a heavy opening up of China to Western trade and investment the government has drawn back. Some contracts have been cancelled and projects scrapped. After turning on the spigot on farm prices, wages, construction and investment, the Chinese leadership finds itself confronted with huge deficits and soaring inflation.Population growth and sporadic food shortages add to the economic strains. In this situation prudence has dictated a cutback in production goals.

It is on the cultural and ideological front that recent changes appear more ominous. Chinese again are being warned about their dealings with foreigners. Writers, artists, and intellectuals are being cautioned against excessive criticism. And the activists who early demanded more democracy have been repressed. The official line now warns on the danger of "rightism" -- of abandoning the ideology of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

It would be premature, however, to view all this as a return to the totalitarianism of Maoist times. Rather it should be seen as an effort to control too swift a relaxation that could undermine the public order and discipline needed as the nation dismantles the old system and builds the new. Furthermore, the "retreat" is probably designed by Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping to protect his political flanks, to deflect elements in the military and other conservative forces that are resistant to all the innovations -- especially with a party plenum looming.

For all the echoes of retrenchment, there is plenty of evidence that China remains on its liberalizing course. Visitors report an uncommon degree of association and candid conversation with Chinese (despite security warnings). There is an extraordinary loosening up in the media -- ABC and BBC news programs , for instance, are beamed into China from satellites without special ideological commentary. Chinese libraries and universities continue to ask for Western books. Thousands of Chinese are studying in Western countries, including Deng's own son, who is a physics student at the University of Rochester in the United States. Peking has moved into the global "establishment" by applying for and receiving a loan from the International Monetary Fund. It is openly reporting its food problems and seeking outside aid. Efforts to introduce a market system go forward. Trade with the US is flourishing.

These are not the actions of a country about to withdraw into itself again. It would be foolhardy to forecast a smooth road ahead for a country which has undergone so much convulsion. Such upheavals could of course happen again. But , even as outsiders take note and voice concern about what seems to be a trend back toward ideological conformity, history suggests they would do well to keep China's zigs a nd zags in perspective. There is no cause for pessimism.

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