ONE need only recall the difficulties faced by Western democracies in dealing with student unrest - in France, recently, for example - to begin to understand the seriousness of the recent round of street demonstrations in China. The calls for political reform and freedom of expression heard on the streets of Peking, Shanghai, and elsewhere during the past two months strike at the very heart of the Chinese political system - which, for all the economic reform now under way there, remains an authoritarian society dominated by that nation's Communist Party. It would be unfortunate if the backlash to the student demonstrations now taking place within party circles were to undercut the impetus for further economic reform, as well as China's growing ties with the West. It is inescapable that China's technological and economic modernization program is in part Western, including Peking's current emphasis on ``material incentives.'' That really means ``profit motives.'' No matter how you define the phrase in modern Chinese, the underlying principle owes more to Western-style capitalism than to Marxist communism.
The weekend dismissal of Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang works against the freer intellectual climate that has accompanied - and, in part, helped foster - the modernization drive. Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, who has been named acting general secretary of the party, is, of course, one of the main architects of the modernization effort. It was he, more than anyone else, who sought to build incentives into industrial and agricultural programs.
But Mr. Zhao is no proponent of Western-style democracy. If there is any doubt that the reins are being tightened on intellectuals and dissidents, one need only consider the expulsion of two prominent intellectuals from the party, Wang Ruowang, a Shanghai writer, and Fang Lizhi, a leading astrophysicist.
Deng Xiaoping, who sits on top of China's huge political power structure (there are some 44 million members of the Communist Party), is still secure and in charge. And Mr. Deng was obviously involved in the decision to remove Mr. Hu. Yet the writing is on the wall that dissent from the basic socialist system has gone about as far as it will be allowed to go for the foreseeable future. Economic modernization will continue, though, in a far more orthodox and restrictive climate.
Western nations will be monitoring their ties with Peking even more closely now. Will there be further shake-ups? Western nations may want to approach dealing with China more circumspectly during the months ahead, until the current political realignment in Peking is clearer.
Deng has just reaffirmed his commitment to continued economic reform. And he insists that China needs a ``further opening'' to the West.
It will be interesting to see, however, whether Peking can open its doors to the West without also having to accommodate itself to the intellectual ferment that such an invitation invariably produces. We doubt it can. Modernization requires a freeing of thought, not just a restructuring of processes.