WESTERNERS are taking an earnest new look at events in that other part of the world which we have tended for so long to think of as almost on another planet - the world of ``communism.'' While I was off on holiday, Dan Rather did ``Seven Days in Moscow'' for CBS, and NBC had ``A Week in China.''
I come back from holiday and find 23 pages in the Oct. 19 issue of U.S. News & World Report on the question of whether Mikhail Gorbachev can remold the Soviet Union. A week later Time magazine goes to 38 pages on ``A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union.''
This week U.S. News is printing a chapter from Mr. Gorbachev's new book. And this week the world is treated to the twin spectacles of the sweeping out of the ``old gang'' of leaders in Peking while Gorbachev breaks from the Stalin heritage in Russia. He recognized the horror of Stalin's maniacal persecution of millions of his own compatriots.
Why all this new fascination with events in the communist world? The answer is clear. The editors of leading Western sources of information have noticed, correctly, that enormous changes are going on in both China and the USSR. These changes will reshape the world of the future.
The most important thing to notice about these changes is that China is ahead of the USSR in breaking free from the bondage of old-style communism.
The change started in China with the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. First there was a struggle for power, from which Deng Xiaoping emerged as the new leader. In 1982, Mr. Deng was able to break the grip of the central authority. First agriculture, then light industry were set free from the central bureaucracy.
The results were spectacular. China had by 1985 become virtually self-sufficient in foodstuffs.
While China was breaking out of the past into the modern world, the Soviet economy was stagnating. By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the younger men in the Kremlin faced a truly frightening condition. It was in part the fact that the Soviet economy was lagging behind that of the whole Western world. But probably the even more disturbing fact to them was that China, with its billion hardworking Chinese, was catching up so fast that the day might come when China would be more modern, and more powerful, than the USSR.
The United States has a tendency to view the outside world subjectively. It sees the USSR as the great rival. It tends to think of the world in terms of that two-sided US-USSR rivalry. It is difficult for people in Washington to be able to conceive of Russia or China being more interested in each other than in the US. It took Washington roughly 10 years to recognize the existence of the break between Moscow and Peking. That break happened in 1958.
Richard Nixon, who reached the White House in 1969, was the first President to fit the fact of the Sino-Soviet break into US foreign policy calculations.
This week, the fact that China has set its footsteps firmly toward modernism was confirmed when Deng Xiaoping shepherded the antiquarians out of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and turned the top management over to the younger generation.
This week, Gorbachev made the break with Stalinism and thus challenged his own antiquarians.
Deng's work is largely done. The reformers are in charge in Peking. That fact is probably Gorbachev's strongest argument in Moscow.
The rivalry between Moscow and Washington has dominated the past 30 years. The central rivalry ahead is more likely to be between China and Russia. To both of them, the US is becoming secondary.