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Chinese grumble at slow pace of post-Mao reforms

''We need a revolution, but all we are getting is a gradual, very gradual, reform. It's just too slow!'' The speaker was a young man, venting his frustration to a friend. Ambitious and willing to work hard, he was stuck in a position in which he felt he had far too little to do.

In the cities, where one-fifth of China's 1 billion people live, prices continue to rise. ''The only thing that doesn't rise is our salaries,'' grumbled one urban worker.

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The government is about to unveil its sixth five-year plan at the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature. (The session will open Nov. 30.)

It will probably cite encouraging statistics about industrial production, as well as agriculture. But in committee sessions, ministers are likely to come under heavy criticism for the slow pace at which economic readjustment proceeds, the continuing shortage of jobs for young people, inflation, and the bureaucratic work style of government and Communist Party officials.

(In a move related to China's serious unemployment, Peking has now shed the responsibility to assign jobs for all, Reuters reports. A government resolution says part of the responsibility for finding jobs will now lie with the individual)

Red Flag, the biweekly organ of the Communist Party, has just published a stinging editorial in effect telling officials to shape up or ship out.

Repeating the central leadership's complaints about ''weak and lax leadership ,'' the editorial castigates cadres who use property of commune members to build their own houses, use special connections to find jobs for their own children, wine and dine, or send extravagant gifts.

The editorial also urges cadres to accept transfers willingly, even when these are seen as demotions. ''Some cadres have been promoted too high. . ., and need to be sent down to make up for their missed lessons.''

Some foreign observers conclude from such comments that the whole economic modernization program undertaken by Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping and his associates, Party Chairman Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang, is in serious difficulties.

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Others feel that although Mr. Deng clearly is still dominant, his hold on power depends on how steadily he can continue to move the economy forward while meeting the demands of the ''broad masses'' for improved living standards and a more honest, more dedicated, more efficient officialdom.

Young people of the post-Mao generation are understandably impatient. Among this generation one occasionally hears rumblings about the need for a new revolution. But the vast majority of ordinary folk who remember the anarchy and sheer terror of decade before Chairman Mao's 1976 passing want above all else a continuation of order, stability, predictability.

These people may complain about the slow pace of Mr. Deng's economic reforms or about instances of official incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. But their discontent has by no means reached such proportions as to push them into violent dissent.

In the countryside peasants continue to reap the benefits of the incentive policies Mr. Deng brought in three years ago. In village after village, peasants are rebuilding their dwellings, sometimes in mud, often in solid brick. Despite floods and droughts, harvests of grain and cash crops this year seem to have been abundant. The flow of bicycles, sewing machines, and other consumer goods to the villages is scarcely sufficient to keep up with demand.

This is a fundamental difference between China and the Soviet Union or East European countries. It is a major cause of the Dengist leaders' optimism about the future.

As Mr. Deng noted in a conversation Nov. 22 with visiting former Vice-President Walter Mondale, ''whether or not things stabilize in China depends on the rural areas, because the rural areas account for 80 percent of China's population.''

As far as most observers can discern, the verdict of that 80 percent on Mr. Deng's policies so far seems to be that they are good. ''I just hope,'' said one village leader fervently,''that they (the policies) will last.''

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