China's premier exudes confidence in speech before legislature


BEIJING -- Yesterday must have been satisfying for much-criticized Chinese Premier Li Peng.

The Soviet-trained bureaucrat's state-of-the-nation speech -- opening the annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp legislature -- was a flat, nuts-and-bolts rendition of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's push for capitalist-style economic reforms.

As long expected, the premier called for expanding the role of free markets in the Chinese economy, streamlining government and separating it further from the management of enterprises -- all to accelerate China's already torrid pace of development.

He said that China's economic growth goal for this year has been increased from 6 percent to at least 8 percent, a target that many parts of the country likely will exceed easily.

But the very matter-of-factness of Mr. Li's speech -- its assured tone and lack of strident political invective -- was its most notable message, one evidencing how much confidence both China and the premier have gained over the last few years.

Mr. Li, 64, has been reviled here and abroad for his key role in turning the army loose on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protesters. In the wake of that massacre, many Chinese predicted he would not manage to serve out the remainder of his first, five-year term as premier.

But all signs now indicate that he will be handed a second term at the conclusion of the legislature's meeting in two weeks.

Many Chinese believe that Mr. Li has achieved his job security primarily because of the Communist Party's unwillingness to admit the truth of the Tiananmen debacle. That is, he is so closely identified with the massacre that dumping him would be tantamount to the party admitting its errors.

Certainly, he has benefited from the backing of powerful party elders, hard-liners with whom Mr. Deng has had to strike compromises.

But Mr. Li can proudly point to China's economic achievements under his tenure and to its rapidly rising ambitions for the near future -- and that was his focus yesterday.

Gone were near-hysterical calls for nationalism, party discipline and internal security that infected major public speeches by Chinese leaders as recently as last year.

Mr. Li did manage to briefly rouse the legislature's 2,978 delegates with strong words for Britain, accusing the British of fomenting disorder in Hong Kong by "perfidiously" trying to inject more democracy in the colony prior to its 1997 takeover by China.

But the central premise of his two-hour talk was this: "Today, the political situation in China is gratifying, the people are united and all undertakings are thriving. The magnificent prospect of modernization is now unfolding before all our people."

Of course, the reality is that all is not so peaceful under heaven, even from the party's most optimistic perspective. The party is not confident enough of its own standing to allow even a discussion of political reforms in the direction of more democracy.

In many ways, the market-economy reforms that it now is pushing are simply an effort to catch up with and endorse forces already afoot in China's far-flung provinces.

Its top leadership remains stitched together by the singular power of one man who does not even hold a formal title, Mr. Deng, an increasingly feeble, seldom-seen 88- year-old long rumored to be on death's doorstep.

But for now, Mr. Deng reigns. The struggles within the party appear largely to have been reduced to arguments over the pace of reform rather than over fundamental differences in ideology. And the party faces no significant challenges -- to a great degree because Mr. Deng's economic pragmatism appears to be achieving something that no other Communist regime has ever delivered: bringing its people a better standard of living over the long term.

For the last 13 years, China's goal has been to raise the living standard of its 1.2 billion people to a life in which basic comforts are widely taken for granted. To do this, China has been aiming to quadruple its 1980 gross national product by 2000.

China easily reached the halfway mark toward this goal before the end of the 1980s. And Mr. Li yesterday proclaimed that the country can reach the full target within another five years -- two years early.

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