Departing further from orthodox Marxism, Peking's reformist leaders have redefined China's stage of political development to legitimize greater leeway for market forces in the economy. The newly endorsed theory, widely publicized over the past week by the official press, holds that China is in the initial ``immature and imperfect'' stage of socialism.
The concept justifies a wide range of market initiatives on grounds that they are best suited to expand the country's still ``backward'' productive forces. Communist Party documents say this initial stage will last ``for a long time to come.''
Premier Zhao Ziyang will use the theory as a springboard for advancing economic reforms in his report to the 13th party congress, scheduled to open Oct. 25 in Peking, Chinese sources and United States officials say.
``The point is to give Zhao a mandate to move ahead,'' said one Washington-based US official.
Chinese party leaders place great importance on ideological definitions, because to retain authority they must reconcile their policies with the historical inevitabilities enshrined by Marxism.
The official New China News Agency Saturday said the theory was one of the most ``significant breakthroughs ... of paramount importance in underpinning the current economic policies.''
It supports efforts by Mr. Zhao, senior leader Deng Xiaoping, and their reformist colleagues to:
Promote private, collective, and foreign ownership as a supplement to the state sector.
Place some state-owned enterprises under private or collective management.
Increase the role of market-oriented fiscal and monetary levers, such as taxes, interest rates, and exchange rates, while curbing the role of central planning in regulating the economy.
Develop markets for labor, real estate, technology, and financial instruments, while allowing the payment of interest, dividends, and rent.
China's reformers have taken the offensive in ideology to counter attacks by conservative party theoreticians, who blame the reforms for social ills and the growing popularity of Western liberalism in China, Western diplomats and Chinese sources say.
``The reformers are venturing into territory held by people who are not so keen on reform,'' said one Western diplomat who follows internal politics. ``In theoretical and ideological fields, the reformers are much weaker.''
``For the conservatives, the first battlefield is the ideological field,'' said a Chinese source, pointing to the strident campaign against ``bourgeois liberalization'' that peaked after student demonstrations last winter.
The campaign saw the dismissal of outspoken reformer Hu Yaobang as party general secretary in January and the removal, or purge, of several prominent intellectuals known to favor greater economic, political, and cultural freedom.
Zhao, who is widely expected to be named the new party general secretary at the October congress, is also eager to embrace ideological advances that would add to his image as the standard bearer of socialist theory, a Chinese source said.
``Zhao used to ignore ideology.'' said the source, who has close ties to China's theoretical circles. ``But now he is forced to get involved in these intellectual issues.''
By leaving ideological matters to the conservatives, the source said Zhao had become like ``a carpenter bound by his own cangue'' - a colloquial Chinese phrase referring to the heavy wooden frame traditionally worn round the neck as punishment in China.
The idea that China is in the initial stage of socialism was first mentioned in vague form at a plenum of the party's powerful Central Committee in June 1981. It was repeated at the 12th party congress in 1982.
But it was not until a Central Committee plenum last September that the concept began to take shape, generating much debate in the official press.
The formulation takes China back ideologically more than 30 years to 1956, when communist leaders announced that the post-revolutionary transition to socialism was basically complete, wrote senior economist Yu Guangyuan earlier this year.
It defies the utopian declarations of Mao Tse-tung, who stated in 1958 that China had embarked on a ``Great Leap Forward'' from socialism to communism.
Yet the carefully crafted theory upholds the four cardinal tenets of socialism on which Communist Party power rests, and is thus seen by some liberal Chinese intellectuals as a compromise between Zhao and the conservatives.