LEADING Chinese economic reformers have launched their first open attack on conservative attempts to roll back market-oriented change since the crackdown on student-led protests in June 1989.
Roughly 100 prominent Chinese officials, economic advisers, and scholars spoke out during a forum organized by the progressive magazine "Reform" in Beijing on March 14-15.
Using strong, emotional language, several reformers broke a silence dating from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to praise top leader Deng Xiaoping and to herald "a new high tide" of rapid market experiments in China, according to participants and official press reports.
Despite continuing hard-line resistance behind the scenes in Beijing, speakers expressed confidence that China's provinces and ministries will act independently to carry out new, bolder reforms in the near future.
Conservative efforts to revert to central planning had "sacrificed reform for the sake of stability," said Xu Xuehan, an economic adviser to China's Cabinet, the State Council. "Deng's words have saved China's life," one participant quoted Mr. Xu as saying.
By openly accusing "leftists," or orthodox Marxists, of working to obstruct reform, the forum thrusts into public discussion the escalating struggle between Mr. Deng and his opponents. It also marks a turning point for China's reform-minded officials and intellectuals, who are on the offensive again for the first time in three years.
"This was an extremely important meeting for Chinese theoretical circles," a participant said.
Under fire, hard-line ideologues and central planners appear to be taking cover. So far, they have failed to rebuff the reformist charges in a major national publication.
Several conservative figures invited to the meeting did not attend. And conservative Premier Li Peng departed from his usual practice, declining to meet the press during the annual meeting of China's parliament, which opened March 20.
Speakers at the forum voiced unprecedented criticism of Mr. Li's economic policies. They also denounced efforts by propagandists to stifle calls for reform and to promote the hard-line agenda of stability and Marxist indoctrination.
China must institute rapid, capitalistic reforms, "smashing the old system and building a new one" within five years, participants argued. They called for faster, double-digit growth to enable the country to realize an "overall economic take-off" by the year 2000.
Enthusiastic applause broke out when People's University professor Fang Sheng reiterated his striking call, first made in the Feb. 23 issue of the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, for China to "critically inherit and draw on the experience" of capitalism.
"This is an idea commonly held by Chinese economists," said Professor Fang in a telephone interview yesterday. "If it were not acceptable, how could they print my article in People's Daily?"
China should accelerate steps to decontrol prices, replace the state distribution system for goods with free markets, and implement shareholding in state-run enterprises, participants said.
Participants said that although the political conflict is far from over, reform initiatives are likely.
"I don't think the leftists will be able to obstruct reforms, especially in coming months," said leading economist Wu Jinglian in a telephone interview. "In coming years, if we do not make mistakes, I think the changes will go forward."
Professor Wu lambasted efforts by "leftists" to revive central planning during a three-year economic rectification drive led by Premier Li that was formally halted on Friday. An economist at the State Council's Development Research Center, Wu was a top adviser to reform-minded party chief Zhao Ziyang until Mr. Zhao was purged in 1989.
"In the past couple of years some people have criticized the whole model of China's economic reform, the socialist market economy," Wu said. "They think the market economy is capitalism, and China should have a planned economy. This is an old leftist idea."
Wu accused conservatives of attempting to expand mandatory planning and recentralize decisionmaking powers.
"They have not been successful, but they tried very hard," Wu said.
Other participants criticized attempts by Marxist ideologues to block reform. Economist Ma Jiaju harshly attacked People's Daily, directed by hard-liner Gao Di, for an editorial it ran on March 13, the day after the announcement of the Politburo's endorsement of Mr. Deng's reformist line.
Mr. Ma charged that the editorial deliberately omitted crucial segments of the Politburo decision on combatting "leftism" while stressing the need to consolidate hard-won stability.