Crumbling certainties

April 19, 1996

Deng Xiaoping, the so-called "paramount leader" of China, is still presumed to be alive. However, recent reports from Beijing have revealed that any utterance of the patriarch must be "interpreted" by higher authority. In future Deng's extensive and powerful family will only be permitted to say that for a man of his age - he is 91 - he is in reasonable health.

Young Chinese cannot now remember the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, the Great Leap Forward (1958) and the Cultural Revolution (1965-69). Maoists are now in short supply. Indeed one "poll" taken in China showed that only a small minority of young Chinese had much knowledge of or interest in Mao's career, a period which they perceive as one of ideological frenzy and economic deprivation. The current problems of China are wholly different.

Deng is the supreme survivor. He was twice thrust down (1967, 1976) and was twice returned to power (1973, 1977). only since Mao's death has he been securely established. His achievement was to remove the mythology from Chinese communism, so much so that we now take pragmatism for granted.

Deng was no serious political thinker and his strength lay not in his intellect but, given the context of China's complex politics, in his political dexterity. Many people remember his comment: "As long as we increase production, we can even revert to private enterprise; it hardly matters whether a cat is black or white - as long as it catches mice it is a good cat."

This quotation indicates a breath-taking indifference to communist dogma, bordering on ideological heresy towards Mao's utopian vision of Chinese communism in the 1960s. A re-reading of what Deng actually said, however, is that the cat was neither black nor white, but spotty - somewhere between black and white. Hence a developed country is neither communist nor capitalist, but one in which the spots of capitalism and the spots of communism could be found side by side.

China, under Deng, has become a mixed economy having a large public or socialist sector together with a much smaller sector for individual enterprise. As he nears his end and prepares to meet Marx, Deng leaves China grappling with the contradictions of a spotty economy as the near-bankrupt, grossly inefficient and overstaffed socialist sector tries to coexist with the capitalism rapidly developing in the coastal area of southern China.

China's youth have no interest in the dictatorship of the proletariat, but every interest in the pursuit of the fast buck. Perhaps Deng senses this truth. While he sometimes sounded like a true successor of Mao Zedong, he will blurt out, astonishingly as he did to a visiting African president: "Whatever you do, avoid socialism in Africa." A new generation economist, Hu Angang, has written in echo of these sentiments.

The new generation has received a confused legacy from the old. It is true that China has, under Deng's tutelage, broken with its Maoist past, but it also adheres to the old socialist certainties. You are not able to survive in China by being "red" rather than "expert". But you are not secure with mere expertise either, at least if you wish to survive in politics.

The 20 years since Mao's death have seen emerge a massive contradiction between economics and politics. It has now become established orthodoxy that China should be prosperous, even if the laws of market economics are only vaguely understood. At the same time political change is neither anticipated nor welcomed by the ruling elite, which in practice means the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist party. The point was very well put by China's most famous dissident, Wei Jing Shun. The so-called Four Modernisations (economics, science, technology and defence) need to be supported, he argued, by the Fifth Modernisation - democracy. For his pains, Wei has suffered two long prison sentences.

Power is unlikely to pass from the Communist party of China. The problem is that without the ideological certainty of traditional communism, its hold on power depends on force, a fact well demonstrated by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The next generation will surely consist of party leaders who have grown up in the era of a curious mix of economic experiment and political orthodoxy.

China is no longer a simple totalitarian monolith and the more critical National People's Congress has tended to demonstrate a greater degree of open-mindedness. China has not followed the path of the Soviet Union, now Russia. However, it no longer has a clear ideology nor a Great Helmsman. But while politics in China is a muddled mixture of socialism, capitalism, feudalism and bureaucratic overlords, it remains prudent for those seeking to make their way in the world of Communist bureaucratic politics to make the right noises and perform the requisite ritual.

The legacy for the new generation is not encouraging. Corruption has now become so entrenched that only the most optimistic Chinese leader could be confident that there is any chance of curtailing corrupt officials.

Little attention is paid to the environment and pollution in Beijing and many other cities and towns has reached serious proportions. Economic growth without environmental controls will leave a mess for the next generation to clear up. There is nothing in Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong thought about pollution.

The new generation will face contradictions between economic liberalisation and political control on the one hand, and between China's formal adherence to socialism ("with Chinese characteristics") and its drift towards a version of capitalism, on the other. China has not gone the way of the former USSR but is nevertheless in a muddle - a bizarre mix of socialism, capitalism, feudalism and gargantuan bureaucracy.

Deng's obvious successor is Jiang Zemin, head of the state, party and of the military commission - a man, however, generally perceived as a mediocrity. So is Li Peng, the prime minister. The "reformer" is presumed to be Zhu Rongji, seen as an advocate of free-market change. In fact, Zhu is a guarded reformer who has sought to hold the contradictions in the Chinese economy together via "Zhuconomics". They have settled for the strange notion known as the bird-in-the-cage philosophy. Just as a bird in a cage has a limited freedom inside the bars, so the Chinese consumer may enjoy a limited capacity to choose.

Old-style socialists are nevertheless suspicious of all this. They possibly see Zhu as a Gorbachev figure about to sell out. Many of China's senior figures have no real ideas but only a feel for survival. The exception could be politburo member Qiao Shi who has ideas and wrestles with such problems as what to dowith socialism.

In China patriotism easily strays into xenophobia. The world is sometimes welcomed, as in China's wish to belong to the World Trade Organisation. Sometimes it is something to vent anger at, with Amnesty International a prime target.

Taiwan suddenly became a huge issue, given the fury of the People's Republic at any suggestion of independence for the province. China's brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits in March has been interpreted as a patriotic duty. Even would-be friends such as President Mandela of South Africa have had difficulties, not wanting to abandon Taiwan while still recognising the PRC.

China will shortly look to a new generation for ideas as the old certainties crumble and the third generation of leaders in the state and party assume the burdens of office.

Peter Harris is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong.

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