Reform and the communist powers. Policy shift in China? Economic reform finds new favor after `ideological chill'

There are outward signs that the leadership most closely identified with economic reform in China is once again in control of political as well as economic affairs. The signs indicate that the efforts by certain veteran leaders to steer China toward a more orthodox Marxist state and away from the experimental economic policies of senior leader Deng Xiaoping have faltered.

Mr. Deng appears to have lost patience with the dogmatic thinking of the conservative communists within the Chinese Communist Party, despite his own irritation with last year's student protests, which gave left-leaning leaders an opportunity to assert themselves.

He is now acting to repair the damage done to China's reformist image in the past five months by restoring the emphasis on developing ``productive forces,'' to use the Marxist term. Some signs of the political shift are:

In meetings with foreign visitors since late May, Deng has said that ``leftism'' is the principal problem in Chinese political life, a direct reference to those party leaders who have dominated the party and cultural affairs since early this year. He has also reaffirmed the view that economic development is the aim of socialism and the party's top priority.

The fight against ``bourgeois liberalization,'' an antisocialist trend, has disappeared from the press.

Those advocating a more ``advanced stage'' of Chinese socialism, without the ideological cant, are being heard again both in the press and, reportedly, in inner party circles.

This political realignment, which remains an insider's story entangled in the personal relations among China's top party veterans, follows what one Western diplomat called the ``ideological chill'' of last winter. The chill came with the downfall of party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in January after a series of student protests focused on demands for more freedom and democracy. Much of the chill remains, both in political dogma and policy - especially in education, journalism, the arts, and literature.

The immediate beneficiaries of this realignment have been Zhao Ziyang, premier and acting party secretary, and a host of younger, reform-minded technocrats who once again see their stars rising. Apparently, they are now in position to dominate the 13th Communist Party Congress, scheduled for early this fall. The congress is expected to approve a new premier and could set the stage for another round of reform initiatives, which have been held in abeyance for more than two years.

For those straining to learn about coming personnel changes, last week's comments by Deng to a Yugoslav visitor hold special interest. Deng praised both Mr. Zhao and Vice-Premier Wan Li for their work in Sichuan and Anhui Provinces, respectively, in the 1970s. Both men were provincial party secretaries at that time and went against central government policy by breaking up communal agriculture and initiating successful rural reforms that were later adopted nationwide.

Deng's comments have been interpreted as strong personal support for the reformers. And some observers see the mention of Mr. Wan as a broad hint that Wan is a leading candidate for the premiership. Zhao now appears willing to give up that post, though he has said that he prefers the more concrete task of leading the government to the vaguer job of heading the party.

Deng first signaled his impatience with the political orthodoxy of some veteran party members in late May. He has also renewed his promise to retire after this fall's party congress, with the unspoken qualification that certain other comrades follow suit. If he, along with President Li Xiannian and economist Chen Yun, all of whom are in their 80s, resigned from the Politburo, it would open the way for elevating younger leaders to the powerful posts on the Standing Committee. There is also speculation that Deng will leave his post as chairman of the Central Military Advisory Commission, retaining only the title of chairman of the party's council of elders, the Central Advisory Commission.

In early June, the Economics Daily criticized the ``ossified ideas'' and ``leftist obstruction'' of those who have resisted reform. It was a broad hint that opposition to Zhao's reforms has been stronger than outsiders realize.

The more cautious People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, has commented that ``the bourgeois liberal ideological trend, which once ran rampant, has been curbed and the situation has changed drastically.''

The reappearance this summer of articles on the economic reforms has encouraged many Chinese. An argument by the party secretary for Shanghai that ``poverty is not a characteristic of socialism'' affirms a high priority for economics over politics.

On the other hand, from the point of view of developing Chinese Marxism, much theoretical spadework remains to be done, and the return to theorizing suggests that the legitimacy of those reforms is still uncertain.

Deng's swing back to the political center has not buoyed everyone's hopes. One scholar, who was among the independent-minded intellectuals silenced last winter, would say only that he remains ``pessimistic,'' though he was encouraged by the new political climate.

A Western diplomat said that the reformists' rebound would not lead to ``a total takeover'' at the coming congress, since leftist voices have only been softened, not silenced. ``The real danger to the reformers is those bureaucrats who think central [economic] planning is the answer to everything,'' the diplomat said. There are many such people around, some in upper ranks of the bureaucracy, he said.

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