CHINESE Communists gave leader Deng Xiaoping a ringing endorsement of his market reforms yesterday even as his party remains deeply divided on the issue.
In a two-hour bellwether speech kicking off a crucial party congress, General Secretary Jiang Zemin heralded Mr. Deng's prescription of economic opening and tight political control. He spoke under a huge hammer-and-sickle emblem flanked by drapes of red bunting.
Although the week-long meeting is expected to strengthen the Chinese leader's hand in accelerating economic change, party conservatives who advocate slower reforms remain formidable, diplomatic and Chinese analysts say.
The meeting is expected to advance younger, reform-minded advocates of Deng's economic agenda in anticipation of a new power struggle among the next generation of Chinese leaders.
In a speech marked by economic conundrums and rhetorical contradictions, Mr. Jiang, a sometime Deng ally who observers say is being shunted aside, praised the market opening while predicting that "a market economy established under the socialist system can and should operate better than one under the capitalist system.
"Reform is also a revolution, a revolution whose goal is to liberate the productive forces," Jiang said, urging the almost 2,000 party delegates to "not get bogged down in an abstract debate over what is socialist and what is capitalist."
"This is a compromise speech between the two camps. But there is still a give and take," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing. "No one can discount the hard-liners and their power. Deng may have won the first round, but there are many more to go."
The long-awaited party meeting comes eight months after Deng made a rare pilgrimage to free-market bastions in southern China and launched his latest offensive against revolutionary hard-liners resisting economic liberalization. Deng, who attended the last party meeting in 1987, did not appear at the opening session. He is expected to attend other meetings later in the week.
Deng this year has pushed a rapid liberalization of the economy, which he says is the key to communism's survival, given its collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Party conservatives favor a slower pace of change as a way to avoid the inflation and economic turbulence that triggered the political upheaval of June 1989. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, disgruntled by high prices and official corruption, took to the streets of Beijing. Deng and other party elders ordered the Chinese Army to use force in suppressing the demonstrations.
Despite his commitment to economic reform, Deng made clear that the party will brook no political challenge.
"The goal of this reform is to build a socialist democracy suited to Chinese conditions and absolutely not a Western, multiparty parliamentary system," Jiang said in his speech.
In an admission of weakening credibility due to widespread corruption among party and government officials, Jiang exhorted the delegates to reform their ranks and end abuses.
"The fight against corruption is crucial to the maintenance of close ties between the party and the people," Jiang said. "We must tighten party discipline and keep a constant watch on the way it is maintained."
In a major issue unresolved since 1989, the policymaking Central Committee last week closed an investigation into former party leader Zhao Ziyang's support of pro-democracy demonstrations. Mr. Zhao, Deng's onetime heir apparent, was barred from returning to politics, but the party did not order criminal proceedings or specify Zhao's "mistakes," a move viewed as a compromise between Deng and conservatives.