Buying China for the party: Deng Xiaoping has attempted to win popular support with economic reform. But a struggle to succeed him may loosen the Communists' grip on power, writes Raymond Whitaker

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The Independent Online
The Chinese language is full of compression and allusion. Shiyi san, literally 'eleven-three', refers to the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978, but it is shorthand for the moment when Deng Xiaoping beat off his rivals to become the country's undisputed leader.

Shiyi san has been heard constantly during the 14th congress of the party, which has just ended in Peking. It is intended to remind China's 1.2 billion people that in the past 14 years they have known more stability and prosperity than at any time since the Communists came to power in 1949, perhaps even since the beginning of the century.

The cataclysms of Mao Tse-tung's time - the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution - are over. Deng Xiaoping Theory has carried forward Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung Thought to the next stage: building socialism with Chinese characteristics.

There is no question that the majority of Chinese are better off under Mr Deng. In the streets of Peking or Shanghai, let alone the booming special enterprise zone of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, it is often hard to remember that this is the world's only Communist superpower. Visitors to the former Soviet bloc used to say that, apart from the obvious differences, they would feel there was something indefinably strange about their surroundings. Finally they would put their finger on it: the lack of advertising and the absence of vehicles on the streets.

Here, however, the traditional association of Marxism with drabness does not hold. The neon signs promoting Samsung and National Panasonic are the same as in any other Asian city, while the traffic jams resemble those of Manila or Bangkok. There are businessmen waving mobile phones, and gleaming hotel towers run by international chains. Only if visitors can read Chinese characters do they realise that the nearest billboard says: 'Long live the great, glorious and correct Chinese Communist Party'.

This is Mr Deng's goal: to prove that Communism does not have to mean stagnation and inefficiency, that it can beat capitalism at its own game, even if it has to borrow the rules of capitalism and redefine Communism. The new formula is 'the socialist market economy', in which the state, while retaining overall control, emancipates the people's productive energies and redistributes resources to where they can be used most effectively.

The foreign investment that has poured into the coastal enterprise zones is proof that the formula works. It is a 'magic weapon', which will transform the rest of China in 'all-directional reform'. Not only that: it will win the support of the people for the Communist Party, damaged by the 1989 Peking massacre and official corruption. It will also quell restlessness among the country's minorities - Tibet is to be 'opened up', for example.

Verbal praise for the 88-year-old supreme leader is not the only sign of the personality cult that is starting to grow up around him. Peking Youth Daily marked the end of the congress with the largest photograph of Mr Deng that anyone can remember seeing in print. A film of his tour of the south earlier this year is about to be released, and 2,000 of his speeches are being prepared for publication.

This, however, has created speculation that Mr Deng, who was not seen during the congress, may have little time to live, which in turn raises the question most prefer to avoid: what will happen after him? As the world's most populous country grows more powerful economically and militarily, the answer grows more important. Yet any gaze into the future is obscured by the cloud that descends on contemplating the death of this one man.

The philosophy being enshrined to guide his successors offers little insight. One of the supreme leader's reputed choices to succeed him, Zhao Ziyang, used to muse about the possibility of China evolving into an authoritarian democracy, on the lines of South Korea or Singapore. If that was what led to his lenient treatment of the democracy protesters in 1989, it cost him his position and freedom.

The approach of the congress forced the leadership to make public its judgement on Mr Zhao, who has been under virtual house arrest since the events of June 1989. It simply confirmed an earlier pronouncement that he was guilty of 'supporting the turmoils and splitting the party', without repeating those words, and announced no action. To have done more would run counter to the party's claim of uninterrupted progress under Mr Deng - in the words of Jiang Zemin, Mr Zhao's successor as general secretary, giving his opening speech to the congress, Tiananmen was a 'political disturbance'.

Yet there is another succinct Chinese phrase for that time, liu si, or 'six-four', referring to 4 June 1989 when, with Mr Zhao broken, the People's Liberation Army shot down at least 800 people in the square. It shows that the massacre has not been forgotten. Until a proper accounting is held, the breach between leaders and led, and between one generation and the next, will not be healed.

The party knows this, but to express regret would be to give up power. Instead, it is relying on economic reforms to buy the people's acquiescence, and the military to keep them down if that fails. This is the essence of Dengism, but whether it can work without Mr Deng is doubtful.

To implement both sides of the strategy, a majority of economic reformists has been created in the Politburo and its inner circle, the Standing Committee, while there has been a significant increase in military representation on the Central Committee. Management of the economy is being left to a new class of 'entrepreneur bureaucrats' - men known for removing obstacles and welcoming foreign investment, such as Zhu Rongji, who has just been appointed to the Standing Committee. To get there, however, he has had to abjure the Zhao-like remarks he used to make, which landed him with the unfortunate title of 'China's Gorbachev'.

In exchange for keeping out of economic affairs, the likes of the Prime Minister, Li Peng, were given custody of the party line. He and fellow conservatives speak for the 34 million party and government bureaucrats, as well as the 100 million employees of state industries, nearly half of which are unprofitable. Mr Deng shares the belief of the reformists that they are an unmanageable burden on the successful sectors of the economy, but has preferred to leave the task of reorganising them - with the inevitable social tensions that massive restructuring and lay-offs will entail - to others.

The power struggle to succeed Mr Deng - and the nature of Dengism almost ensures there will be one - is likely to be between those who support economic experimentation and those who take refuge in orthodoxy. The party has much to lose if the contest breaks outside the walls of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound next to the Forbidden City. 'If it does, almost anything could happen,' said a Western diplomat.

The other four-fifths of humanity has done what it can to 'engage' China and reduce its unpredictability, mainly by supporting the economic reforms. These now seem irreversible: they are unlikely to be permanently affected by what happens after Mr Deng. But it would be a dangerous error to equate this with stability.

The price of helping Mr Deng has been that it has allowed him, and probably his successor, to keep the Communist Party in power longer than it might have been otherwise. Unable to turn to the people, reluctant to make many of the changes that would preserve the economic gains made so far, the party is unlikely to use the time it has been given wisely.

(Photographs omitted)