China's leaders try to recover respect of masses

The intellectual was remembering the promises of China's past leaders - Mao Tse-tung and Hua Guofeng - and he was clearly embittered:

''We remember that in 1958 Chairman Mao promised that we would catch up with Britain in 15 years. And after the 'gang of four' was overthrown, Chairman Hua said we would make some progress in three years, and a lot of progress in five years.

''Six years have passed since the fall of the 'gang of four,' but we ordinary people feel that the only thing that has increased during these years are prices.''

This intellectual belongs to the generation that welcomed the advent of the People's Republic in l949 with utmost enthusiasm. At last China had ''stood up, '' as Chairman Mao said.

But the buoyant and self-reliant mood that characterized those early days has given way to pessimism. And the Communist Party, which was at the pinnacle of its prestige then, has lost much of its public respect - a problem the party is finally addressing at its 12th Congress.

''I think the Communist Party will recover about 20 percent of its prestige as a result of the 12th Congress,'' said the intellectual. ''Whether it recovers more prestige depends entirely on the economic results of the team of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang'' - the present leaders.

''Our salaries don't keep pace. . . . The police won't register you, the school won't accept your children, unless you are in a position to do them favors or can offer them some small gift. That's not the way things were in the early '50s when I was a student.''

To join the party today is the way to high position, to creature comforts, even to wealth. The present leadership is trying hard to correct this image, and the venerable Chen Yun, elected after the 12th Congress to the first secretaryship of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, has repeatedly said that the working style of the Communist Party in power is a matter of life and death.

The new Central Committee, 60 percent of whose members are new to it, has elected a strong Discipline Inspection Commission, and the leadership seems to mean business. A rectification campaign is to begin next year and to culminate in a re-registration of the party's 39 million members - a process that is intended to weed out undesirables.

The leadership repeatedly says that only a tiny minority of Communist Party officials and their families are corrupt. But the image of ostentatious living and corruption within the party is so widespread that, unless some dramatic arrests are made, the public's ''show me'' attitude is unlikely to change. So far the highest official fingered is a vice-minister.

Cleaning up corruption is essential because the party is going to have to demand sacrifice and hard work from the general population for many years to come.

Mr. Hu said in his report to the congress that the government was in no position to increase wages substantially unless there was a rise in productivity. Productivity depends on the public's enthusiasm, which can be evoked only if all can see that sacrifices are being equally shared.

Many Chinese intellectuals will say they retain a love for China, a hope that their country may be strong and respected some day. But they are far from equating the party's cause with that of China, as they did in the early days of communist rule. The 12th Congress seems to have taken an important first step toward removing deadwood and rejuvenating the leadership.

But in the months to come the people will be closely watching the party's and government's actions to see whether they match what has been promised.

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