CHINA'S reformers are campaigning to revive market-oriented policies and end an obsession with political stability that has thwarted progressive change since the democracy protests of 1989. Unusually bold calls for reform by Chinese provincial leaders in recent weeks signal an attempt to thrust economic reform back to the top of the nation's agenda, Western diplomats and China experts say.
``Reform ... was the most fundamental driving force of [China's] huge achievements in the 1980s,'' wrote Ren Zhongyi, a senior leader of Guangdong Province, in the official Nanfang Daily. ``We still need this driving force in the 1990s.''
With a bluntness that surprised diplomats, Mr. Ren accused the central government of failing to expand reforms in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan, as pledged by conservative Premier Li Peng three years ago.
Such statements signal a new confidence among China's reform-minded provincial leaders, who checked attempts by hard-liners to carry out a sweeping recentralization of the economy under the recent five-year plan.
Yet it is unclear whether the reformist campaign will succeed. The 1991-95 plan approved by the rubber-stamp parliament in April is a compromise between advocates of market reform and orthodox central planners.
Senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who launched the reform era in 1979, has been working since last summer to revive experiments aimed at enlivening China's state-run economy with market forces, say Chinese sources with access to the Beijing leadership.
The reforms came to a virtual halt in September 1988 when Beijing ordered a regime of strict austerity to combat double-digit inflation and overheated growth.
After the June 4, 1989, crackdown on massive student-led pro-democracy demonstrations, Communist Party hard-liners made political stability China's paramount goal. Price and ownership reforms were rarely mentioned, and central planners moved to reassert stifling bureaucratic controls over the economy.
Chinese sources say Mr. Deng has no intention of easing the political controls and Marxist indoctrination imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre. But he believes that halting reform in the name of stability would be a dangerous mistake, they say.
ECHOING Deng's economic pragmatism, recent statements by reformers raise arguments to undermine the conservative credo that has prevailed since the 1989 killings.
Reform, they contend, is vital to maintaining social stability.
``To achieve real stability we must push forward reform, to make continual improvements in people's livelihood,'' says Xu Zhi of the Guangzhou Economic Restructuring Commission.
``It is wrong to say that the 1989 instability resulted from reforms going ahead too fast,'' Mr. Xu said in an interview last month. Conservative party elder Chen Yun has blamed Deng's 10 years of reform for causing the rebellion of 1989, Chinese sources say.
Recently Ren, the Guangdong leader, also attacked a conservative slogan enshrined in 1990: ``Wending yadao yiqie,'' or ``stability overrides all.''
``From now on ... we should not say a certain job is `an overriding task,''' wrote Ren, referring to the slogan. ``This is not only unscientific, but it often affects the people's ability to concentrate ... on economic construction.''
Ren and other leaders assert that despite minor ``shortcomings and mistakes,'' the mainstream reform program since 1979 has been totally correct.
Li Hao, party secretary of the booming free-enterprise zone of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, reportedly urged the public last week to support and protect innovation and risk-taking by reformers despite inevitable errors.
``As soldiers on the frontline of reform, we are faced with risk and uncertainty,'' Mr. Li told the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong. ``The masses should not have too much criticism.''
In an article last month, former Guangdong party secretary, Lin Ruo, attributed the province's spectacular economic achievements to the decade of ``enlightened'' reforms. ``Without ... the policy of reform and opening, Guangdong would have nothing today,'' he wrote.
Finally, provincial leaders assert that stepping up market-oriented reforms is the only way to solve China's economic troubles. Relying on the heavy-handed, bureaucratic methods employed since 1988 in the drive to ``harness and rectify'' the economy will aggravate problems, they say.
Beijing's central planners, in contrast, have given the rectification program priority, saying it is necessary to create conditions for further reform.
``Conservatives are coming under attack from the provinces, and the attacks have grown much stronger over the past month,'' a Western diplomat says.