CAN Western-style consumer and technological advances be successfully adapted by an Asian society without also admitting Western values such as open inquiry and individual-based democracy? This is a question faced by all of the Asian Rim capitals, from Seoul in the north down to Singapore in the south - and not the least in Peking, capital of the People's Republic of China.
It is a practical question.
Security of investment in a socialist country like mainland China, where the central government and party apparatus have a history of intruding in local industrial decisions, is as much linked to trust in the governing system as it is to bottom-line matters like supply and demand.
Right now Peking's behavior reflects a pulling back from the reforms introduced in the last few years by Deng Xiaoping, the key leader. Mr. Deng himself, while holding only secondary-seeming posts, is still in business, deftly positioning himself between reformist and conservative factions. But the conservatives, led by Peng Zhen, having succeeded in ousting reformist party chairman Hu Yaobang in January, have been busily cracking down on students and the press and thwarting proposals such as those that would have restricted the role of party bureaucrats in making decisions on industry. Mr. Hu had had a falling-out with Deng, possibly because Hu was pushing older party members to retire, had ignored the military, was putting his own people too boldly in place, and appeared too lenient about the pace of change China could tolerate.
Whatever. Reform, while not repealed, has been put on hold on the mainland, pending the outcome of internal party and government negotiations leading up to the crucial Communist Party Congress this October. Even then, the result could be a split in the authority of the prime minister, Zhao Ziyang, who has been serving as acting General Secretary of the Communist Party since Hu's ouster. The power struggle being waged among a group of octogenarians over Western ``bourgeois liberalism'' could lead to a consensus or compromise pact, until Deng and his senior colleagues pass from the scene. Analysts see a rough patch ahead for China, well into the 1990s, unless a clearly established leader dedicated to reform emerges soon.
The mainland's economy has trouble enough without uncertainties from the top. Its inflation rate of 6 to 7 percent is tolerable. But experiments with pricing freedom are disrupted by government meddling. China still has not developed a way to adjust prices the way a free-market economy does. The central bank cannot effectively discipline local governments, which interfere locally. There is a consensus that the state sector must dominate, but beyond that the lack of a consensus among the top leadership on how to proceed with reform leads to indecision down the economic line.
By this summer, the World Bank will have lent $5.5 billion to China since 1981, all in loans for development projects, and has provided a great deal of technical assistance - as have other outside benefactors. The World Bank alone has helped train 7,000 people in economic management positions in China. Even so, the lack of skilled managers hampers development. So does a shortage of foreign exchange.
Still, it would be a mistake to minimize the extent of the reforms that have taken place in this once rigidly state-controlled economy. China's recent consumer gains have outpaced any in the Soviet Union. China's trade deficit is small by developing-country standards. Its product line has diversified rapidly. Its easing of restrictions on foreign investments has been offset by outside concern over China's political direction. China is closer to Thailand and the Philippines at the upper end than to India at the lower end of the developing world spectrum. Life expectancy in China is now roughly comparable to that in the West. China's goal of $800 in individual income per year by the year 2000 appears reasonable - and would mark a considerable achievement for a society so vast.
Some of China's problems parallel those of the West. An advancing economy demands greater fairness in the employment of women. Today, there are 45 million working women in China's major cities, 36 percent of the total working population. The more developed the cities, the greater the percentage of female workers. Yet even state-run enterprises often set entrance examination requirements far higher for women than for men, to the detriment of quality in the work force as well as equality in the society.
Yet China's ``socialist capitalism'' cannot be mistaken for the Western version. China has no concept of work force mobility: Workers must stay put unless permission is given by work units to secure employment elsewhere. Permission to marry is not given until a woman is 25, a man 27 - to restrict the number of potential childbearing years. A pervasive neighborhood and workplace spy system is an anathema to Western sensibilities.
Western capitalism demands access - to ideas, to opportunity, to offices. China's penchant for holding off suitors, keeping them waiting in ``fish ponds,'' like fattening fish, is antithetical to the modern economic pace.
Only 1 or 2 percent of Chinese students can attend the universities, indicating a still paper-thin veneer of the elite. Its ``egalitarian'' reward system still leads to gross inequality, in which a comely restaurant attendant in Xian can earn as much as a surgeon on a nearby medical faculty.
All of China's five thousand years of history seem to be collapsed in a single image today - a laborer straining to pull a handcart bearing a prefabricated concrete floor slab. Radio and television bring the outside world instantly into a Chinese culture that would prefer to remain inward looking. China finds itself caught between the expansive managerial, technological ways of today's West and its own China-centered, introspective tradition. With annoying facility, China both uses the West and disdains it.
It would be presumptuous to forecast how China will work out its own progress. It is enough to note that it has made great gains, and that its greatest obstacles lie within its own approach to the world, not in the forces outside its borders.
Second in a series