Brooms of 'civic virtue' campaign sweep China

The outside world pays special notice to a Chinese warning that continued US arms sales to Taiwan may cause downgraded relations between Washington and Peking.

But inside China, the focus is on cleaning up - both the bureaucracy and the streets.

On March 2, Premier Zhao Ziyang announced one of the biggest reductions in bureaucracy since the People's Republic was founded in 1949. Premier Zhao told the standing committee of the National People's Congress that 98 ministries, commissions and agencies under the state council will be slashed to 52 through mergers and cutbacks. And last week the premier began a different kind of cleanup. He introduced a campaign to promote civic virtues. In a radio and television speech, he urged citizens to rid cities of ''filthy environment, social disorder, and lack of courtesy.''

China, he said, has always been known as ''a land with an ancient civilization, as a land of courtesy.'' In the early post-liberation years, ''we were praised by people all over the world for cleanliness, orderliness, politeness. We must carry on this glorious revolutionary tradition.''

In line with the new cleanup, Peking and other cities are festooned with bright red banderoles proclaiming the need for courtesy and decorum, for obeying traffic regulations, for beauty of mind, language, behavior and environment.

Why this emphasis when it would seem China's leaders and citizens might seem to have more important things on their minds?

For example, Peking and Washington continue their tense dialogue on American arms sales to Taiwan. The New China News Agency issued a strongly worded commentary March 1 on the discussions, saying that the Sino-American relationship is at a ''critical point.'' China has been ''forced into a corner without any options,'' the commentary said. ''If the United States insists on a long-term policy of selling arms to Taiwan, Sino-US relations will retrogress.''

The commentary is said to have been personally approved by China's powerful leader, Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping. It dampens the exchange of cordial letters between President Reagan and Premier Zhao on the tenth anniversary of the Shanghai Communique Feb. 28.

At home, Premier Zhao's report on the sweeping reorganization will affect hundreds of thousands of party and government officials at all levels of the administration.

Corruption is part of the concern. The People's Daily and the Workers' Daily March 2 carried graphic accounts of a gang that sold cars and other vehicles illegally in many parts of the country for nearly two years, reaping 1.3 million yuan (about $722,000) in profits.

The gang was arrested and now attention is on the hundreds of officials who may have colluded with them.

Also in the domestic spotlight is the fitful progress being made in economic readjustment. Dozens of factories that produce heavy machinery stand idle while employees continue to draw full pay.

If, in the midst of all these preoccupations, China's leaders take time out to preach civic virtues, it must be because these virtues have a great deal to do with the kind of society the leadership wants to build.

One foreign observer uses the term ''a decent society'' to describe the leaders' goal. It is, perhaps, the Chinese Confucian version of the shortlived Dubchek ideal of ''communism with a human face.''

The decent society is not a democratic, individualistic society in the Western sense. Instead, it is a society in which there is not only discipline and order but also moderation and a certain flexibility in the application of supposedly universal principles. It is a homogeneous society in which members have respect for the principles of decorous behavior. It is a predictable and stable society.

Mao Tse-tung was a rebel against this. His Cultural Revolution destroyed or severely damaged many of the virtues it upheld. Whether his successors can bring back decency and decorum to China while moving away from feudalism, bureaucratism, and one-man rule, remains to be seen. But civic virtues month is an important component of this effort.

As part of the campaign Communist Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, Army Chief of Staff Yang Dezhi, first Deputy Premier Wan Li and other top party and government officials have been seen on television wielding long brooms in Peking's Beihai park. They are spearheading a cleanup campaign involving some two million schoolchildren, communist youth leaguers, housewives, workers and other Peking citizens. All have been scrubbing the marble lions and balustrades of the forbidden city, dismantling unsightly shelters built for the 1976 earthquake, and clearing garbage and debris from various back streets.

Everyone is being urged not to spit in public; pedestrians are being told they have the right-of-way on zebra crossings; car drivers are being warned not to toot their horns more than three consecutive times -- with each toot not exceeding half a second. From now on, says Premier Zhao, one month each year will be designated ''civic virtue month.''

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