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After the reign of peasant communism


PARIS -- The future of China is commonly described as politically unsure, with economic development the remedy (on the simplistic assumption that markets create democracy). More likely is that China's troubles in the future will be economic, with political upheaval the result.

The dynasty created by Mao Tse-tung is near its end. What is to replace the reign of peasant communism remains unknown. It is premature, and rash, to think that it will be democracy.

The Communist revolution arrived at its inevitable Thermidor when Deng Xiaoping took supreme power, even if he had himself been implicated in the ideological turmoil and savagery of the "Great Leap Forward," and had crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

The ideological relaxation and command capitalism for which he was responsible brought corruption with them, including corruption of the Communist Party itself. The "third generation" -- which by now means the sons and daughters of party privilege -- enriched itself at the expense of the state.

This has been tolerated by a new middle class, a nascent democratic civil society, itself prospering from the new Chinese economy and the post-1978 opening to the world. The economic transformation that benefits these ruling classes -- to use a term no doubt inconvenient in today's China -- has been spectacular, and is what foreign visitors and investors see, rightly impressing them.

However, the distance between China's new classes and the Chinese masses is equally spectacular. More than 130 million peasants alone have been jobless since the decollectivization of agriculture. That figure is half the total population of the United States.

China's Labor Ministry forecasts 267 million unemployed by the year 2000 -- a figure about equal to the total U.S. population. China's own estimated population is, of course, 1.2 billion, but this still means that projected unemployment will affect something like a fifth of all China's people, and this translates to a vastly larger percentage of the active population.

Facade of eternal China

The new, prosperous China is still only the facade of eternal China. Thirty miles from the booming cities are villages which one reaches only on foot or by cart, where living standards are often worse than under communism. Agricultural discontent is a significant threat to the government. A majority of peasants believe that the new rich gained their wealth through corruption. There have been armed clashes between peasants and local authorities.

Workers themselves, told for a half-century that they were the rulers of Maoist China, today too often find themselves abandoned, paying for the prosperity of the new class, the new entrepreneurs, and foreign investors concerned only with repatriating profits made from cheap Chinese labor.

Regional conflict is also a reality. Since 1994 the Communist Party's Central Committee has been urging local authorities not to resist the policies of the central government and to "put the national interest ahead of their own" -- evidence, of course, that the opposite has been happening.

The party itself admits that many local party organizations are paralyzed or have lost respect and authority. The new government faces a tangible risk of anarchic breakdown. Deng Xiaoping's creation of Special Economic Zones, become rich enclaves of foreign investment, greatly contributed to regional tensions.

Breakdown is what the Chinese most fear, a degeneration of central authority and reawakening of forces that in the past have plunged China into national disorder and internal conflict.

The Western capitals, and Washington in particular, make heavy weather of human-rights violations in China, but Mr. Deng, after crushing the Tiananmen demonstrations, brutally remarked that "the flies will come back" to the honeypot, and he was right.

The investors and businessmen came back, or never left, and Ron Brown and Warren Christopher came back, as -- symbolically -- did Bill Clinton. Madeleine Albright planned to be in China this week. Vice President Gore is scheduled in March.

Outside opinions and pressures in any case have little chance of changing China's sovereign treatment of its own people. As in the Soviet Union, that kind of change comes only from a conversion of opinion among the elites themselves. China's dissidents are testament to a moral evolution in political society, but also evidence that basic change is distant. China fears disorder. This fear will be intensified as the inevitable succession struggle develops.

A commentary recently published by the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing observed that in China's history, "when struggles for power begin, the dynasty disappears." The Manchu dynasty lasted a little more than two and a half centuries, but by the early 19th century was decisively weakened by internal struggle, and unable to resist European demands and interference. Four decades of struggle followed its collapse in 1911.

The succeeding Red dynasty has lasted for a half-century. The ** dynastic interregnum now has begun. These rarely have been peaceful.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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