China's Neoconservatives Step to the Fore

COMMUNIST Party hard-liners are exploiting the ``neo-conservative'' credo of a group of young Chinese scholars in an effort to legitimize their ossified dictatorship. Unlike the party's die-hard Marxist ideologues, the self-proclaimed ``new'' conservatives entertain no illusions of building a communist Utopia.

Their priority, as ardent nationalists schooled in China's ancient history and literature, is to make the country rich and powerful while keeping it uniquely Chinese. Like proud Confucians of the late 19th and 20th century, they seek to preserve China's ``essence'' in the face of an invasion of Western ideas.

The shock of last spring's Tiananmen Square protests made allies overnight of China's ``new right'' and a Communist Party desperate to reestablish control.

Like the party, neo-conservatives favor a gradual, cautious approach to political change. Calling themselves ``cool headed,'' they condemn the students and intellectuals who led the democracy movement as ``romantics,'' ``radicals,'' or ``nihilists.''

China, they warn, is not ready for the adoption of ``Western-style'' democratic and capitalist systems, which they say would only plunge the nation into chaos.

The conservative scholars back the Communist Party, not as Marxists, but because they view it as the only organized force able to maintain order in China today.

Consequently, they argue that the Army massacre of Beijing citizens last June 3 and 4 was justified to ``save the nation.''

``What happened on June 4 was hard to avoid,'' says He Xin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a widely published neo-conservative. ``If the present government maintains its effective control,'' Mr. He adds, ``the June 4 incident will be a very minor one in Chinese history.''

Critics warn that conservative thinkers are so preoccupied with the perils of change that they fail to offer concrete solutions to China's problems. Instead, they blindly submit to party policies that are leading the country toward stagnation, and, ironically, deeper unrest.

Until June, neo-conservatives had survived only as an intellectual undercurrent in China, isolated and ostracized by the mainstream of students and scholars.

Intellectual debate in China was intense and forward-looking. Liberal scholars of the minzhu pai (democratic faction) battled with ``new authoritarians'' backing then Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang over how best to hasten reform. New authoritarians sought to concentrate power in Zhao's hands to sweep aside obstacles to a free-market economy.

But Chinese at the forefront of those debates were jailed or forced into exile after the crackdown, leaving neo-conservatives to dominate the intellectual spectrum. Under party patronage, conservative academics have made television appearances, published articles in official journals, and written memos to top leaders.

``Before the Tiananmen incident, my voice was very faint. It was suppressed by the radicals,'' says Xiao Gongqin, an associate professor of Chinese history at Shanghai Normal University and a staunch neo-conservative.

``Now, my voice is stronger and stronger,'' the middle-aged scholar said with a smile.

Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin has privately praised Mr. Xiao's critique of Western democracy. China's so-called ``crown princes,'' Deng Pufang and Chen Yuan - the influential sons of Chinese patriarchs Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun - share the political convictions of Xiao and other neo-conservatives, say Chinese sources.

In cultivating scholars like Xiao to justify its policies, the Party is reverting to ancient Confucian statecraft.

Throughout history, literati have helped endow China's autocrats with legitimacy by advising them in the art of government. Rulers who lacked such learned advice, it was thought, risked losing their heavenly mandate and being overthrown.

Party leaders apparently believe younger conservatives like Xiao are less repugnant to China's disgruntled citizenry than the Maoist ideologues have gained prominence since June.

Especially unpopular are Maoist hold-overs like Wu Weicheng, Propaganda Department vice director, and Shao Huaze, editor-in-chief of the party mouthpiece People's Daily. Both were active in ultra-leftist writing groups during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

``The authorities want to promote some intellectuals whose political features are not that ugly and who can still deceive the masses,'' said a Chinese scholar on condition of anonymity.

At the heart of neo-conservatism is an emotional aversion to luan (chaos) and a deeply rooted yearning for incremental, harmonious change. After decades of warlordism, civil strife, and radical political campaigns, many Chinese fear another cycle of internal disintegration.

Many neo-conservative intellectuals experienced first hand the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution and other violent campaigns under Mao Zedong. Obsessed with stability, they contend that swift steps toward democracy and free enterprise would be disruptive for China.

``If reforms proceed in a radical way, we will have a second Cultural Revolution,'' says Mr. He, the CASS researcher. ``China's future will be chaos and civil war. The nation will be divided,'' says He, who likens multiparty politics to the internecine warfare of Mao's Red Guard factions.

With a backward, agrarian economy and widespread illiteracy among its population of 1.1 billion, China lacks a viable social foundation for the building of democratic institutions, the conservatives say.

In China, social relations are based on status, not law, says Professor Xiao, who contends that ancient autocracy has stifled the emergence of independent interest groups needed to make political pluralism succeed.

China's political culture, which is pervaded by a Confucian reverence for authority, would prevent democratic institutions from playing any ``decisive role,'' argues Wang Huning, of the International Politics Department at Shanghi's Fudan University.

Betraying a scholarly paternalism, conservatives add that most Chinese are not knowledgeable enough to cope with choices a democratic system would offer.

``To carry out democracy, the majority of the people must know what their interests are,'' Mr. He states.

Neo-conservatives argue that liberal students and intellectuals who spearheaded the democracy movement ignored China's guoqing (national peculiarities) and naively sought to destroy the communist regime before a new system could function.

``They had a beautiful, adolescent dream,'' says Xiao. ``They thought the Western system was like a jacket that anyone could wear.''

China must forge its own development path, which demands Chinese intellectuals cooperate with the party, Xiao says.

The neo-conservative creed is unlikely to move the mainstream intellectuals whose support is vital to the success of China's modernization drive.

The conservatives admit to having received death threats and verbal abuse from anonymous Chinese intellectuals who view them as opportunists and traitors to the democracy movement.

``They inherited the essence of Confucianism, the golden mean,'' says one liberal scholar, referring to the Confucian emphasis on compromise and obedience to established rulers. ``History has proved that this has never benefited reform, but has always favored power and authority.''

Second in a three-part series. Part one appeared yesterday.

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