Stopped in its tracks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 1994, 12:00am

IT is an indictment of the Communist Chinese administration that if demonstrations were to erupt upon the death of patriarch Deng Xiaoping, the slogans chanted by the activists would be similar to the angry refrains of early 1989.

Five years ago, the students were calling for an end to corruption and ''officially-sponsored speculation''.

The firebrands also wanted a lower rate of inflation and a quicker pace of political reform. Incredibly, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has done almost nothing to tackle the problems.

Hasn't Mr Deng repeatedly called upon his cadres to ''seize the day'', and to ''take advantage of the favourable international climate to expedite reform''? Mr Deng has also made it clear that by ''reform'', he means not only economic but political liberalisation.

Soon after the massacre, the patriarch told former president Richard Nixon: ''It is wrong to say we work only on economic reform, and not reform of the political structure.'' However, an examination of the party's performance since then has shown that, as a People's Daily commentator reported this week, ''contradictions among the people'' have mushroomed.

Official Chinese figures, which are often understatements, say that inflation is hovering around 25 per cent in the cities.

The price spiral is thus worse than the 21 per cent for 1988, the year of panic buying and bank runs.

A semi-official news agency recently said that inflation was about to breach ''the threshold of tolerance'' of most sectors of society.

Corruption has runneth over, to the extent that the People's Daily opined late last year the scourge had become an ''inevitable'' by-product of the ''socialist market economy''.

Top judges and procuratorate officials have conceded that graft-related crimes - more than 60,000 officials were indicted in 1993 - ''had been unprecedented since nation-building [in 1949]''.

In December 1986 and May 1989, the CCP decided to take ''resolute action'' against student activists upon signs of workers joining in.

This year, labour problems have reached cataclysmic proportions. Official statistics say more than 200 million nationwide are unemployed or underemployed.

Internal reports said there were 12,000 counts of relatively large-scale industrial incidents in 1993. Two-and-a-half thousand of these involved ugly incidents such as strikes, arson, and workers surrounding the premises and refusing to let the bosses go.

THE big question: will the street rallies that many diplomats and China watchers have predicted for the first weeks after Deng's departure be as devastating as those of 1989? The same observers, however, think there is a good chance the authorities could defuse the revolt at least in the short run, say, for up to 12 months. Since early this year, the State Council has set aside emergency funds to pay workers who have been laid off in such depressed sectors as coal, textiles, and metallurgy.

Standing orders have been given to local governments to contain the strikes to ''within the premises of the factories'' by giving the aggrieved parties something to take home.

The police-state apparatus, including the estimated 800,000 officers of the People's Armed Police (PAP), has been working overtime to, in the words of PAP Commander General Ba Zhongtan, ''nip the signs of unrest in the bud''.

A key reason why the pro-democracy protests grew so big so fast in 1989 was the leadership was divided over the issue of democratisation.

This time around, different factions have, in the interest of their common survival, agreed to put up a facade of unity at least in the first year of the post-Deng era.

It is obvious, however, that no administration can hold on to power forever by sheer dint of military prowess or police surveillance.

Many among the CCP's moderate cadres have already realised that, however painful at the outset, power-sharing with other social sectors is the only way to make for a peaceful transition to the 21st century.

These cadres are aware that corruption can never be eradicated if the CCP does not allow at least a rudimentary form of ''Western-style'' checks and balance by, for example, empowering an independent organ to make investigations into the misdemeanours of officials.

At the National People's Congress last March, several maverick deputies privately suggested setting up a quasi-independent anti-corruption watchdog.

The same goes for labour problems. The only solution to industrial disputes is for the CCP to recognise the right of workers to form their own unions.

''Making concessions such as limited power-sharing looks like chipping away at the party's authority, and this goes against Deng's post-June 4 obsession with boosting the CCP's monopoly on power,'' a Western diplomat said.

''However, the facts are simply that the party would crumble sooner if such 'concessions' were not made''.

Aside from exacerbating the ''contradictions'', the party's failure to conduct a dialogue with its people has meant the rolling back of reforms, now the CCP's only basis of legitimacy.

Unable to handle popular disaffection with the negative fall-outs of market-oriented experiments, the CCP has settled on the eventually self-defeating course of postponing or down-sizing them.

Thus a moratorium has been put on price reform and the restructuring of state enterprises.

Analysts say, however, the CCP's fears that a slight opening of the door to liberalisation would lead to an Eastern European-style break-up of communist rule are exaggerated.

In a recent conversation with a foreign businessman, a leader of the Guangdong Government said he had no fears about holding ''Western-style elections'' in the southern province. The cadre indicated the living and educational standards of his ''ahead-of-the-times province'' had improved to the extent conditions were ripe for more democracy. What was most important, he added, was that if elections were held, the CCP would win by a landslide.

The provincial leader's reading of the situation is largely correct. However, it could be years before the mandarins in Beijing would allow this to come to pass. Aside from the fact that it takes time for Guangdong-style ''bourgeois liberalisation'' to sweep the capital, it is true that most areas in the heartland lack the requisite socio-economic conditions for Western-style democracy.

This reality, however, is no excuse for not taking action, or, as Deng and company have done in the past five years, turning back the clock on democracy. Intellectuals in Beijing have demanded that immediate steps be taken towards embryonic reforms like granting an amnesty to dissidents and scrapping the ''counter-revolutionary'' laws; inviting ''bourgeois-liberal'' intellectuals and private entrepreneurs into the Government and the legislature; ensuring the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law; and promoting the separation of party and Government, and more important, the separation of party and army.

The tragedy for Mr Deng is that having done a heroic job salvaging the economy after the June 4 disaster, he has neither the vision nor the vigour to attend to the other side of the equation.

It is up to Mr Deng's successors to make amends. If they fail to do so, elements other than the CCP will pick up the pieces - and make the Middle Kingdom fit for Asia-Pacific century.