When China's ruling Communist Party proclaimed recently that it was time to overhaul the country's mental outlook, few Chinese appeared to take notice. The party's message came in a recently issued 10,000-word document intended to lay the philosophical groundwork for senior leader Deng Xiaoping's moderniz-ing program. Although political analysts and diplomats say it was a milestone for the post-Mao period, the Chinese public appears unimpressed.
After all, as one Peking intellectual observed, top-down attempts to remold Chinese culture and values are not new. It has long been a practice of the ruling class. It peaked under the Communists when Mao Tse-tung tried to impress his vision of the world on the minds of peasants, who he once described as ``poor and blank.''
``On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written...,'' Mao once said.
The trouble is, China's peasants and workers are not as ``poor and blank'' as Mao imagined them to be - especially now. Under Mr. Deng's leadership, many people have achieved a level of material prosperity that, although a direct result of party-mandated reforms, has made them more independent of government largess and freer to direct their lives. There has also been a retreat from old political indoctrination campaigns, and there is conspicuous apathy toward everything ideological.
It is therefore not surprising that many Chinese give little weight to the document on ideology issued by the party Central Committee at its plenum meeting two months ago. The title alone indicated this was not to be light reading: ``On the Guiding Principles for Building a Socialist Society with an Advanced Culture and Ideology,'' sometimes translated as ``...Building a Socialist Society with a Spiritual Civilization.''
``I've heard of it, but I don't know where to find a copy,'' was the nonchalant comment of one young man. A senior research engineer said that his institute's staff had been told to read it, but he hadn't found the time. ``I don't know of anyone who has,'' he said.
``Even I haven't read it. It's not really very important,'' commented a senior newspaper editor.
Foreign diplomats who analyze Chinese political developments don't agree. They point to remarks by former party propaganda chief Deng Liqun that the resolution went through eight or nine drafts and represented a significant compromise among senior party leaders.
``It's a solidly reformist document,'' said a Western diplomat. He argued that it established an important base line for future party discussions that could help dampen the inevitable swings of the political pendulum, especially swings back to tighter social and economic controls.
``The document has made it clear that economic development is the `key link' in building a socialist society and that opening China to the outside world is the party's unalterable policy,'' the diplomat said. ``It also calls for jettisoning concepts proved wrong,'' he said, noting the forthright language that rejects the orthodox Marxist ideas that have dominated past party politics.
These are some of the premises of Deng's leadership now enshrined in a resolution unanimously approved by the Central Committee. Some observers say the document could clear the way for reform of the political structure, though it avoids directly addressing that.
The document lays most blame for China's backwardness on the country's ancient feudal system, though it mentions ``imperialist aggression'' as a reason for China's lag behind modern times. It also rejects ``all the ugly and decadent aspects of capitalism,'' and the practice of ``pursuing personal interests at the expense of others.''
``These statements are warnings for the benefit of the younger party leaders,'' said a veteran party member. He indicated that the senior leaders who had reservations about the pace and direction of Deng's reform plans wanted the document to be clear about the pitfalls of going too fast or forgetting the party's socialist ideals.
If it is still unclear what is meant by ``socialist spiritual civilization,'' however, a recent commentary in the official weekly Beijing Review shed some light on the idea. It indicated that the party is defining ``spiritual civilization'' in terms of certain kinds of social behavior.
With China's opening to the outside world, the commentary said, Chinese can compare their society with others, and through comparison, ``there is a great deal to learn in the way of practical and spiritual values.'' The commentator reasoned that this opening did not necessarily undermine Chinese culture, but could help strengthen social values and guide individual behavior.