China's Tug of War - Conflicting Ideals

`I feel so out of touch with the younger generation," a friend who recently came out of China said. "It seems to me that all they want to do is to get rich and enjoy life. Things were much simpler in the 1950's."

This friend is not a Communist Party member, and he does not hesitate to complain about the privileges of bureaucrats and party officials. His father was a day laborer from one of China's poorest parts. He himself managed to graduate from a good college. Although he knows Mao Tsetung's vision was flawed, even in the early years of the People's Republic (founded in 1949), he remains committed to the ideals of socialism. He is angry that Communists don't seem capable of practising these ideals in a way tha t would be meaningful to ordinary citizens like him.

"When I married, I just picked up my bedroll and came to live with my wife," he says. (She was a schoolteacher.) "But now young people want all kinds of things, from televisions and refrigerators to stereos and fine clothes." This is a different kind of complaint from that of American congressmen who remain fixated on the Tiananmen tragedy. But I suspect it's rather widespread, particularly among people of my friend's generation.

China presents a paradox. It's still a poor country, and the vast majority of its 1.1 billion people lead lives most Westerners would find bleak. But in the coastal provinces where the economy has galloped ahead, doors are wide open to investment from Hong Kong and overseas, new businesses are springing up, and a get-rich-quick mentality has taken hold. Guangdong province, adjoining Hong Kong, enjoyed 25 percent growth last year.

The post-Tiananmen contest between conservatives and reformers appears to have been resolved in favor of the reformers, under the patronage of senior leader Deng Xiaoping. Li Peng, a conservative who is identified with the suppression of the Tiananmen protests, remains prime minister. But as one analyst describes it, the main difference between his line and that of the reformers is not over whether to continue opening up the economy, but at what pace. Li could well be out of office when the next Communis t Party Congress convenes some time this fall.

To see what a wholly market-run economy can do, prices must be decontrolled, and subsidies to inefficient state-run enterprises must be phased out, even if some of them go bankrupt and their workers lose their jobs. That is what the more impatient reformers urge, and it is the direction in which China's neighbor and longtime model, the former Soviet Union, is headed.

But many older Chinese, including my friend, look upon what is going on in Russia with horror. They all experienced the 10-year turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao in 1966 with the slogan, "It's good to rebel!" The authorities who crushed the democracy protests in Tiananmen three years ago rather easily persuaded these older Chinese that unchecked protests would have led to anarchy.

Another large group that fears change is made up of workers in state-run enterprises, the ones the government is pressing to reduce waste, increase productivity, and turn a profit. The life these workers lead is symbolized by the term "iron ricebowl" - permanent jobs, cheap housing, free education, and medical care.

"They'll never get rid of the iron ricebowl," scoffs a former top official of one of the machine-building ministries. Even today, whenever a factory director tries to fire even a single worker, he finds irate comrades at his door, refusing to countenance change.

Finally, there's a perennial tug of war between central bureaucrats in Beijing, determined to keep control over planning and allocating resources from richer provinces to poorer ones, and bureaucrats from these richer provinces, who are equally determined to see that the lion's share of their earnings from exports and manufactures remains in local treasuries.

So the question in China, both for individuals and for provinces, is how change seen as necessary will also be fair. Would democracy, a greater voice for ordinary voters, assure this? My friend would like to say, Yes. But he can't be sure. Therein lies his personal dilemma - and China's.

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