The shock of the new

TO borrow from Chairman Mao: modernisation is not a dinner party. The lesson of the Shenzhen explosion is that it takes more than investment, infrastructure, exports and the ''two cats theory'' (''a black cat is as good as a white one if it catches mice'') to help China meet the requirements of the 21st century.

The mini-catastrophe in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) - just as the stocks scandal there last August, in which a riot broke out over the distribution of ''share lotteries'' - is evidence of not just simple mismanagement.

It is symptomatic of a national problem: the country is devoid of what can be called a modernisation spirit, a mentality for looking at and running things that has enabled countries and regions like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and to some extent, Hong Kong, toshed their feudalistic past and be at the cutting edge of developments that will radically transform the ''East Asiatic'' model.

The scale of the national lack of fitness for modernisation is alarming given the fact that the two mishaps took place within a year in one of China's most forward-looking cities.

IN a throwback to the late 19th century, Chinese leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are convinced that the Four Modernisations could be achieved largely through ''hardware'' such as money, know-how, and foreign engineering wizardry.

It is to the credit of reformist leaders in Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan that they have more or less come to understand that what is equally if not more important is software such as culture, the rule of law, the free flow of information, and specially,the willingness to accept different opinions and to make changes accordingly.

Since the late 1980s, Shenzhen authorities have at least acquiesced in the invasion of Hong Kong culture. More praiseworthily, SEZ cadres have systematically studied and in some instances copied Hong Kong laws and practices in business, municipal administration and fighting corruption.

The explosion and the stocks scandal have, however, shown that even Shenzhen is a laggard in the race for enlightenment.

Take, for example, the rule of law and administrative probity. It is obvious that the SEZ lacks the most basic regulations governing the storage of dangerous chemicals.

In contravention to international norms, different kinds of potentially explosive and toxic material were lodged in adjacent warehouses in the Qingshuihe disaster site.

The facilities were also close to oil and petrochemical depots, timber factories, and, incredibly, food and vegetable stores and markets.

With reference to the Shenzhen disaster and similar incidents in other parts of the country, China analysts said even if precautionary regulations existed, they were often flouted.

The reason: most Chinese cadres and managers believe guanxi (''connections'') can help them circumvent the laws - and they are often correct. Equally disturbing is the fact that, as the stocks scandal illustrated, Beijing and municipal authorities are reluctant to crack the whip on wrongdoers.

CHINESE sources said many culprits behind stocks-related corruption in Shenzhen were still at large. The then mayor Zheng Liangyu was made the scapegoat. But in time-honoured tradition, he was late last year given a ''face-saving transfer'' to Jiangxi Province as vice-governor.

Again, political considerations - such as maintaining the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) prestige - seem to come before the imperative of punishing offenders.

The respect for the law and administrative rectitude seems to have been eroded by the misguided effort to speed up the materialisation of the market economy.

Some leaders apparently believe that, to jack up the gross national product (GNP) and the export figures, it is permissible to play fast and loose with the law books and to shelter ''over-zealous'' cadres - or to hide the truth from the public.

The very awkward news blackout imposed on the Shenzhen disaster shows that the CCP has not learned the lesson of June 4, 1989. Again, there is a conscientious attempt to put a lid on the death toll.

This is despite the fact that four years after Tiananmen Square, it has become almost impossible for the authorities to stop individual officials and mainland reporters from speaking to the outside world.

The blackout only betrays a fear of exposing the CCP to criticism by the press and the public. The experience of the modernisation of much of Asia, however, has shown that government censorship only ensures that the authorities stay within a cocoon of ignorance.

When the patriarch kicked off the ''new stage'' of reform during his historic tour of southern China in early 1992, he urged officials and party members to ''change their brains''.

What Mr Deng - or at least his liberal persona - meant was, of course, hardly original.

Before the Four Modernisations - Agriculture, Industry, Defence, Science and Technology - can be achieved, 1.15 billion Chinese and specially their leaders must go through a modernisation of the spirit.

Owing to familiar reasons including the CCP's obsession with its monopoly on power and with weeding out ''bourgeois-liberal'' ideals, Deng and Co have steadfastly refused to liberalise their way of thinking by one whit.

Harking back to the Qing dynasty modernisers, CCP chieftains seem to subscribe to the theory of ''Chinese learning for the essence; Western learning for the practicalities''.

In other words, the senior cadres hope modernisation, or at least economic development, can be attained while preserving such traditional values as ''undying loyalty to the leadership''.

The party's tunnel vision is exacerbated by the rapid depletion of the class of modernisers. In much of Asia, take-off has been achieved by a corps of dedicated civil servants, managers and thinkers who want their countries to overtake the West in not just technology but efficiency and fairness of government.

Owing to factors including poor pay and lack of ''inner-party democracy'', modernisation-minded officials in China have, since the early 1990s, left the party or government by droves.

For more than a year, employment bureaux in Beijing and other cities have spearheaded aggressive recruitment campaigns in Western countries. A minority of the relatively few overseas-trained intellectuals who have returned to the motherland have been appointed to senior-level positions.

Yet Chinese sources said the party did not trust them enough to give them more substantial jobs than consultants or advisers.