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China after normalization: undercurrents of dissent

"When we think of China," said the intense young Communist Party member walking beside me, "most younger people have two concepts. "One is the concept of China as our fatherland" -- in Chinese, Zuguo, or land of our ancestors.

"The other is the concept of China as a state. All our criticisms, resentments, and frustrations are directed against China as a state.

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"But when we think of China as our fatherland, we have nothing but affection and love -- pride in our past and hope for our future."

This conversation took place, as have most of my most interesting conversations since coming to China, in a park. There is no open restriction on Chinese meeting foreigners, but many Chinese are uneasy about having to give their names to guards at hotel doors or at the gates to the compounds in which members of the foreign diplomatic and journalistic community reside.

Said another young Chinese, who is not a party member, "I agree with the goals of the four modernizations set by our leaders. I think that we should all work hard so that by the end of this century we can enjoy per capita incomes of

"But I am not sure we are going to achieve these goals through socialism. Look, if we want higher standards of living -- and our leaders have told us that that is what we should work for -- any Western country has done much better than any socialist country. Americans, Britons, French, German, Japanese -- they all live better than the Russians, or the Czechs, or the Poles, and certainly much better than we do.

"I've never lived under capitalism, so I have no idea whether it is really a terrible system of exploitation, as our leaders tell us, or whether it may be a better system than socialism. But if the goal is a better standard of living, we know the capitalist countries have done better than we have. Shouldn't we at least look into some aspects of the capitalist system?"

All over China, this enormous country of nearly 1 billion people, young people are thinking, and yearning, and waiting, and judging.

Of course, there is the bell-bottom-trousers brigade, who flaunt their individuality by copying the flaming sartorial colors of overseas Chinese visitors, who dance to disco music in handkerchief-size apartments, and perhaps get involved in petty thievery or smuggling in watches, stereos, and color television sets from abroad.

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But conversation after conversation with young people in this country, and with older people as well, strengthens the impression that for all the turmoil of the 10 years known as the Cultural Revolution (1966- 76) -- perhaps becausem of this turmoil -- a sizable number of people in China are in a more serious and questioning mood about their country, its purposes and goals and the ways and means by which these goals may best be attained, than ever before in the 31-year history of the People's Republic.

The corollary is that, for perhaps the first time since the founding of the republic, China's leaders must come to grips with the hopes and fears, the doubts, the hesitations, the skepticism and downright cynicism of their own people.

If Premier Zhao Ziyang, party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, and their tart-tounged, plain-speaking mentor, Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, can somehow mobilize the deep affection most Chinese still feel for the "fatherland" of which my first friend spoke, they have a chance of success.

But after so many twists and turns in party policy under Mao Tse- tung and the "gang of four" who ruled in his name during the last 10 years of his life, people are waiting for facts rather than slogans. (The gang of four, headed by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, were given heavy sentences Jan. 25 after a three-month trial.)

Americans and other Westerners asking whether the new China will be friend or foe should note, and take heart from, the present leadership's need to gain wide popular approval for their policies and their evident determination to do so.

Most Chinese today know that their fatherland is poor, that it has fallen far behind Western countries in science and technology, that it has crushing burdens of population, housing, and employment, that it will take decades of hard work to set things right.

"We Chinese are a patient people," said a college junior who spent three years working as a field hand before being allowed to take university entrance examinations. (She was the only high school graduate among 30 in her production brigade to pass these examinations.) "I think we can wait longer than the Poles."

But the organization that is to guide this new "long march" is still the bureaucratic state of which my first friend complained.

This friend's father is a veteran of the first long march, the epic trek led by Mao Tse-tung in the mid-1930s from the Red Army's first revolutionary base in Jiangxi (Kiangsi), central China, to Yanan (Yenan) in the remote northwest.

"My father met my mother in the Yanan days," my friend said. "She was a guerrilla, too, fighting in the northern revolutionary areas."

Mao Tse-tung, to my friend's parents, is still a hallowed figure, the founder of the republic, without whom the China of today would not be. My friend thought so also, following his parents into the Army and party and, during the Cultural Revolution, enthusiastically volunteering for the hardest tasks. It was only when he saw the violence and the factionalism into which the Cultural Revolution degenerated, the great gap between noble words and despicable deeds, that he began to question whether China was on the right road. Today he is out of the Army and has a reasonably good job as a library assistant, although, like so many youths of the Cultural Revolution generation, he has missed the opportunity to go on to university.

He and his friends question whether their country's bureaucratic party and state apparatus is adequate to guide 1 billion Chinese into the promised land of economic modernization and relative material affluence. The leadership has promised sweeping institutional reforms: a new party and state constitution, abolition of the personality cult and of lifetime leadership, opening up positions to younger, technically qualified people, more democratic discussions at every level before decisions are taken, more meaningful elections, a more independent judiciary.

At the same time, my friend sees no easy alternative to continued Communist Party rule. He knows the party has lost tremendous prestige because of such mistakes as the Great Leap Forward (1958-59) and the Cultural Revolution. Some of his friends have joined some of the minor so-called democratic parties which were allied to the Communists before the latter came to power. But he himself stays with the Communist Party, feeling that if reform is to come to China as a whole, it must start from within the ranks of the party.

The other friend, who thought China should try out aspects of capitalism, comes from an intellectual family, both his parents being doctors who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. "My social education began when I was a child, watching from an upstairs window as crowds chanting slogans beat at the door of the clinic where my father worked," he recalls. Subsequently, he joined the Army and served three years near the Vietnamese border.

Today, his most ardent wish is to go on to university; but having failed once , he is not optimistic about a second chance. Meanwhile, at his workplace he took too literally the suggestion that young people should speak up. He made several suggestions for saving money that proved embarrassing to the leadership and had to change jobs as a result.

The China these young people live in is a country torn by contradictions, beset by daunting problems. In a recent interview, a newspaper editor said 14 million were unemployed out of a total urban population approaching 200 million. Another editor estimates that the economic readjustment program now going on, under which expensive heavy industry building projects are being canceled and factories operating at a loss will be closed down or required to change their product lines, will dislocate another 6 to 10 million people throughout the country.

It is perhaps a measure of the more open society in which the Chinese live after the downfall of the gang of four that Chinese in responsible positions can voice these concerns to foreigners. That does not diminish the size of the problems the country faces.

Cancellation or postponement of many prestige projects, including petrochemical complexes at Nanjing (Nanking) and Shengli and a huge steel mill outside Shanghai, is external evidence of the rethinking going on at the highest levels regarding priorities in China's modernization program and the need to balance ambitious goals with the practical means at hand. China's leaders refuse to recognize that they are experimenting with some of the aspects of capitalism, as one of the friends quoted in this article advocated. But that is actually what they are doing.

Agricultural communes still exist, but the basic accounting unit is now the production team of some 30 or so families, and small private plots have been restored to individuals. Free markets account for much of the vegetables, eggs, and poultry sold in urban areas.

In factories, bonuses and incentive payments are the practice, and workers are gradually being allowed to elect their own leaders, in some cases up to director level; in most, up to workshop level.

Economic decision making is being decentralized, to a degree, from central-planning authorities and ministries to provinces and cities.

And -- although many people think this cannot be done -- the party is gradually trying to distance itself from day-to-day running of the government, of provinces, cities, factories, and communes. The party will continue to be responsible for overall policy guidance. It is supposed to get out of the details of running things.

This is an experiment no party as large and as pervasive as the Chinese Communist Party -- 38 million members in all -- has ever attempted before. The leaders at the top may be convinced of the need, but the resistance at middle and lower levels is great.

Nevertheless, it is important for the outside world to know that the experiment is going on. More than the quarrel with the Soviet Union, more than the ups and downs of relations with changing American administrations, the determining factor in what happens to China in the 1980s will be what goes on inside China itself.

So far, the overall trend is encouraging, despite the magnitude of the problems with which the leadership must cope. So far, in terms of general direction, the leaders seem to have the country with them, though there may be sharp disagreements and criticism over specific details. So far, there seems no alternative to the leadership of the Communist Party, despite its severe loss of prestige, and the party leadership seems genuinely committed to reforms that will reach deep down into the party structure. There have been rumblings of discontent from within the Army, the most conservative of the elements of power inside China, but an overt challenge to the Dengist leadership has yet to materialize.

China's immediate future will be determined by how well the leadership manages the economy -- what Deng and company do about inflation, now reaching 15 percent in major cities, how successgul they are in creating new employment, whether they can widen pockets of prosperity springing up in rural areas, whether they can straighten out the imbalance between agriculture, light industry, and heavy industry, and most important, whether they can energize farmers and workers alike to produce more without demanding more than a modest increase in immediae mateial rewards.

This is not a program they can force on the country. They may threaten, they may cajole, they may persuade. But ultimately, their success or failure depends on the extent to which their own countrymen respond, as individuals and in groups. Only a community of purpose born of a recognition of hard facts can save China, and China's leaders know this.

Therein lies the importance of the concept of fatherland stressed by my friend. Therein lies the greatest and, indeed, the only real reason for hope for all those who believe in democracy and in the people's will as the mandate of heaven.

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