ALARMED by mounting instability, maverick members of China's Communist Party are calling for a return to iron-fisted rule as the only way to advance market reforms and achieve democracy. These young theorists promote a ``new authoritarianism'' under reform-minded Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang. They say only an all-powerful leader can end China's economic crisis and deliver long-promised prosperity and freedom.
Mr. Zhao, general secretary of the party, tacitly supports the call to elevate him over conservative rivals who have exploited economic turmoil to seize his day-to-day powers and halt his critical reforms, the theorists say.
Fiercely debated in official publications, the proposal for autocratic rule represents a drastic effort to end a crisis of credibility that is undermining party power. It is an extreme antidote for the rampant official corruption and 30 percent inflation that have fueled widespread popular discontent. (Cynicism and pragmatism underlie call for enlightened despotism, Page 3.)
``There is great popular resentment against the state for its having lost control, and it was very evident at the end of last year that the state faces a credibility crisis,'' says Wu Guoguang, a commentator for the party newspaper People's Daily and a proponent of new authoritarianism.
``This crisis means big trouble for reform because we can only advance reform by relying on the state and party - under these circumstances we must strengthen the authority of the party and state,'' Mr. Wu says.
The advocates of new authoritarianism label liberal Chinese intellectuals as utopians for believing that democracy is a critical precondition for modernization. They point to South Korea and Taiwan and argue that autocratic regimes with vibrant market economies will eventually evolve toward democracy.
Surveying socialist countries, they note how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has used unrivaled power over the Communist Party and state to enact profound political reforms.
Beijing, they say, must quickly name an heir-apparent - like Zhao - who would take charge of the waning political and military powers of elder statesman Deng Xiaoping and prevent a potentially disastrous succession crisis.
The current economic plight makes the need to strengthen Zhao all the more urgent, they argue. Since inflation sparked panic buying and bank runs in August, Zhao's conservative opponents have launched an economic retrenchment, restoring many state planning methods scrapped by Zhao and Mr. Deng.
The ``young Turks'' promoting Zhao threaten these conservatives. Hardline party members oppose the transfer of power to a strong man and resist sweeping market reforms that would weaken their bureaucratic privileges.
Liberal dissidents also harshly criticize new authoritarianism, fearing it would usher in a return of the personality cult and abusive, one-man rule that characterized the Mao era. ``New authoritarianism is very dangerous, especially if it is connected with the idea of nationalism or gains the support of the military,'' says Su Shaozhi, a theorist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
``What would guarantee that this authoritarian leader would use his powers wisely and wouldn't be corrupted by his power?'' asks Mr. Su, who believes effective democratic reform must begin first within the party itself.
Proponents acknowledge that their plan would not prevent the return of a tyrant like Mao Zedong and a repeat of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Yet ``the problem with Mao was not his power but his thinking,'' a new authoritarian theorist says. The new autocrat would be directed toward constructive ends by the legacy of Deng, who repudiated Mao's utopian thought and established the pragmatic goal of economic reform, he says.
Under new authoritarianism, China would risk tyranny in order to break an ancient political cycle in which strong central authority decays and is only restored by a new despot after extreme tumult.
Already, there are signs that China has entered a turn in this ``dynastic cycle,'' proponents of new authoritarianism say. The party has recently tried to flex outmoded central controls but proved unable to halt inflation and corruption or regain the powers it surrendered to regional officials under economic reform.
``During the decentralization under reform we gave power to the provinces but now we can't get it back - surely now in China our party and government have no authority,'' Su says.
At once both desperate and impotent to renew its power, the party is likely to abandon reform and worsen the economic crisis by resurrecting the most drastic forms of state planning and political repression, what the theorists call ``old authoritarianism.''
Conversely, a new authoritarian would lead China out of its stagnant political cycle by imposing a market economy and finally an autonomous legislature, the ultimate ends of China's current economic and political reforms.
Unlike the current leadership, an absolute ruler could subdue intense opposition from apparatchiks jealous of their power and citizens facing the instability of an emerging market economy, they say. An enlightened autocrat would thus lay the foundation for a democracy that would bring about his own obsolescence.
The theorists propose Zhao as China's new despot, noting that he is Deng's favorite and the most intrepid reformer on the party's five-member standing committee. He would appoint the premier and control both party and state, clarifying the overlapping role of the two administrations.
``Zhao understands that the authority of the center has to be strengthened to push through reform, but he doesn't have the power to do this himself,'' Wu says.
The theorists are pessimistic that the party will appoint either Zhao or anyone else as a benevolent autocrat. Collective leadership is too deeply established in China and both party members and ``the masses,'' recalling past tyranny, would strongly resist the annointment of a strongman.
Yet if this change is not made, ``China will soon face a great disaster from inflation, corruption, confusion in society and inequalities of wealth,'' a theorist says.