Following the leader

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am

ALL good newspapers keep their obituary files up to date, just in case. But no one's file has been updated more often than that of Deng Xiaoping. He has come back twice from oblivion and held on to power 25 years beyond the age when most Western politicians draw their pension. But now at least it seems even Deng's constitution can ward off no longer the ravages of old age. His final curtain call draws near.

As it does, so comes China Without Deng. Although it appears while the man himself still draws breath, this death-defying anticipation does not make the book any the weaker. Barring some major convulsion or the sudden death of one of the major players, the analysis presented here will hold good whether Deng meets Marx this year or shortly thereafter.

David Goodman and Gerald Segal are political analysts of the first order, and here they start from first principles. Deng's death will have a huge impact because there is no established system for handing over power, because the country is ruled from the top and major decisions were until comparatively recently centred on one man. The People's Liberation Army could move no troops without Deng's signature, the authors say.

Who will wield that power when Deng is dead? The answer is no one. Deng may be a short man but there is no one of equal stature to take over from him. Deng has 70 years' experience in the revolution and unparalleled respect among the Chinese armed forces. No one else measures up.

But a leader of some sort there will be. Goodman and Segal provide thumbnail sketches of all the plausible contenders for the top job. While the mainland propaganda machine swings in behind Deng's latest anointed successor, Jiang Zemin, the authors deflate the hot air and bombast in two paragraphs that could be delivered by a stand-up comedian. Jiang, they say, 'first achieved fame in the 1950s as a deputy director of the Shanghai Soap Factory'. The man has 'John Major-like qualities of charisma', and more importantly no standing in the army. He will not last the distance.

So much for Jiang. The verdict on the other candidates is more positive but in terms of Chinese politics all have their weak points. There may never again be a paramount leader.

Meanwhile the future of the Chinese Communist Party itself is in doubt. Instead of being the vanguard of the revolution which will turn China into a communist society, the party in the provinces is more of a social club like the Rotarians, a gathering place for prominent businessmen and local political bigwigs.

But despite this profound change there will always be a role for some centralising, conservative institution, the authors say. They downplay the widespread Western notion that increasing economic liberalism leads in a straight line to political freedom.

While people may have wider choice in their own lives, the 'small democracies', there is still little sign of an organised business class springing up outside of the state system. Even the most successful privately-owned companies remain small, the authors say, and it is only when businessmen go into partnership with local politicians to supply land and permits that large-scale companies are established.

When their eye lifts from the immediate aftermath of Deng's death to the long term, the authors' vision of China's future is bleak.

China is still pursuing the kind of nationalism that the countries of Europe only abandoned after fighting two of the most destructive wars in world history.

That means China is heading for conflict with Taiwan, Russia and Japan, the authors claim, which could lead to a much larger conflict with the entire Western world. China is the joker in the pack and wants the existing deck reshuffled.

But the authors say it would be optimistic to expect China to follow any other path.

The Chinese leadership has chosen to promote a culturally based Chinese nationalism because there is little else left in the ideological DIY box to keep the country glued together.

After decades of monumental bungling and incompetence, communism and socialism are both equally discredited in the eyes of the Chinese people.

But the unleashing of capitalist market forces is putting the fabric of society under severe strain as the peasants desert the land and head for the cities.

The book may be just over 100 pages but there is no lack of depth. The authors cover all the ground, leaving you with much to ponder.

The only warning is do not read the last chapter before going to bed. The conclusions are so dark and gloomy, they may give you nightmares.