China's `Hollow' Political Core

Deng is wrong to think that economic reform will placate the desire for political reform

THE whirlwind pace of economic growth in China has astonished commentators, and the pessimism that reigned since 1989 has turned to ebullient optimism.

Paramount leader Deng Xioaping is usually credited for this growth; once more his rule is called "enlightened dictatorship." Some argue that if Mr. Deng had not decided to suppress the 1989 Democracy Movement, China might now be in a state of chaotic lawlessness comparable to that in the former Soviet Union or even Yugoslavia.

But this view begs the question: Why, if Deng intended to accelerate the pace of economic reform all along, did he wait for more than two years after the Beijing Massacre of June 4, 1989, to launch his new drive for change in early 1992?

From the very beginning, Deng's reform agenda has been aimed at repairing the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party after it was virtually destroyed by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). To this end, central control over local authorities, enterprises, and individuals was relaxed in fits and starts throughout the 1980s. But each new burst of reform only underscored the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was actually an impediment to China's modernization drive.

This realization prompted Chinese students to occupy Tiananmen Square in 1989 and prompted millions more across the country to join the attempt to force fundamental change. But Deng was never able to comprehend the essentially reformist emphasis of the protestors.

The bloody crackdown accelerated the erosion of the CCP's legitimacy; today the moral authority of the Beijing regime has reached an all-time low.

Deng's 1992 tour of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and Guangdong Province was a grudging acknowledgment of the power of regional forces, which had effectively thwarted the center's attempt to revive conservative political and economic policies between 1989 and 1992.

Deng hoped to co-opt the dynamism of South China in order to shore up the power of the central government, but local leaders saw his visit as a political trade-off: In return for expressing their loyalty to the Chinese patriarch they wanted more economic liberalization (read decentralization).

The provinces have shown their gratitude by humiliating the Beijing leadership whenever possible. In Zhejiang and Guizhou Provinces, candidates hand-picked by the CCP Central Committee lost their bids for governorship. And at the National People's Congress, unopposed conservatives Li Tieying and Premier Li Peng both received an unprecedented number of "nay" votes from the normally compliant Congress delegates.

Thus the recent boom is not a result of top-down management by party leaders in Beijing. Rather it has emerged because of grass-roots efforts to carve out a sphere of economic autonomy strong enough to defy the central government's attempts to reassert political control.

Intellectuals are a driving force behind this growth; they have abandoned their old dreams of contributing to the party's "national salvation" effort and have gone to work with local governments and businesses. Others have set up their own enterprises, parlaying pre-1989 political connections into commercial capital.

Deng's endorsement of high growth is aimed at developing the economy so rapidly that the Chinese people will not call for political reform. Refusing to "reverse the verdict" on 1989, he hopes that economic opportunity will bury the memories of the government's brutal response to the people's demands for rights.

However, this political calculus is flawed: As the 1989 demonstrations made clear, increased economic autonomy intensifies popular demands for a commensurate degree of political autonomy.

Chen Ziming, a Chinese dissident now in prison serving a 13-year term, warned in 1988 that Deng was attempting to center China's entire politics and law in himself. Now, this is more true than ever; Deng's assent is needed for all major decisions, and his decisions are less and less appropriate.

Some Chinese economists have argued that were it not for Deng's political intervention, the country's economic development could have been healthier and less likely to need the painful readjustments that current inflationary trends, growing unemployment, and structural deficiencies may necessitate.

China's booming economy provides a temporary smoke screen for the hollowness at the core of Chinese politics.

Until the Chinese people have the opportunity to choose their own leaders in free elections and stable democratic institutions start to be constructed, China will remain vulnerable to the quixotic whims of party ideologues and to the spontaneous outbursts of social unrest.

The potential for dramatic upheaval remains strong. The astonishing pace of economic change cannot ensure a stable future for the nation.

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