WE all know of the unprecedented demonstrations and student hunger strikes in the middle of Beijing. But what does it mean? Will it lead to democratic reforms? To the fall of the Communist Party-dominated government? All of these scenarios have been suggested, but the short answer is that no one in Beijing, much less New York, really knows what will happen. China's long history suggests the sort of leadership necessary to channel the energies of the students and respond to the economic worries of workers and private cultivators. This model of leadership is enshrined in China's ancient culture myths in the example of the ``Great Yu.'' The ``Book of Documents'' (traditionally ascribed to Confucius) records the story as an object lesson. The problem of the time was floods. First, one leader named Gun tries to solve the problem of damming the waters, but the waters only grow. Next comes our hero, the Great Yu, who suggests channeling the waters out to sea. Everyone lives happily ever after. Indeed, the word for Yu's channeling, zhi, is now part of the Chinese word for ``politics'' - zhengzki.
To date no such leader or program to channel the tide of popular frustrations has appeared. On the contrary, there have been dark threats of military suppression. If this damming of popular sentiment does come to pass, China's leadership will risk making the mistake of Gun (who not only failed but went down in history as one of the ``Four Bad Omens''). The problem today is that neither the government nor the demonstrators have suggested a realistic channel. No leader or clear set of policies has emerged.
Why? Why are the students vague in their demands? Why do intellectual leaders like Fang Lizhi or Liu Binyan not take up the task of the Great Yu? The short answer is: Because the Chinese Communist Party has successfully neutralized the intellectual leadership and maintained organizational hegemony throughout China. Clearly, leading reformist intellectuals in China support the students. But many of the top figures, such as Mr. Fang and Mr. Liu, have been expelled from the party. Thus, if they assume leadership, the whole movement is easily marked as antiparty (worse than being ``liberal'' in a United States presidential election). The students, on the other hand, are powerless beyond such symbolic acts as the hunger strike, because, aside from the Army and the Communist Youth League, there are no legal nationwide organizations of any political significance in China. This is, of course, the golden rule of Leninism: Don't let anyone else organize outside of party supervision.
THE students' lack of programmatic vision is clear from their demands. Both the Shanghai and the Beijing student demands fall into three categories: the top leader should resign, government corruption should end, and the local flash-point issue should be resolved (meet with the hunger strikers in Beijing, reinstate the dismissed journalist Qi Benli in Shanghai).
Also, most commentators have noted that the students are not clear on what ``democracy'' means. Indeed, the only consensus over the range of demonstrators is negative - make so-and-so resign, stop cheating us.
It is important to note the language used by both government speakers and student leaders. Everyone is a good communist. Most significantly, the party is not trying to label the student demonstrations as ``counterrevolutionary'' or as ``hooligans'' - the usual socialist response to public demonstrations. The government has, however, a powerful card to play in this battle for public opinion: the specter of chaos. Anyone who lived through the Cultural Revolution has a vivid picture of rampaging students rioting and torturing innocent victims in the name of ``idealism.'' Prime Minister Li Peng's claims of ``anarchy'' in Beijing stir up nightmares in China's silent majority and, if applied carefully, could take the wind out of the students' sails.
On the other hand, workers and journalists (who are state employees) joining the students reflect a deep malaise in the public that clever phrasing will not make disappear. A million people marching in the streets in defiance of a Leninist state must count as one of the most amazing sights in the 20th century. Many Chinese may not be clear on what democracy is, but they are clear on what they loathe: having to bribe local officials to get things done and seeing the sons and daughters of government leaders (locally as well as nationally) get the good jobs. Something must be done to control the leadership, some checks and balances. If one lesson of the Cultural Revolution is to fear student mobs in the street, another is to distrust a leadership that selfishly looks to the interests of its own elite.
What we are seeing in China, then, is the playing out of the two key lessons of the Cultural Revolution: the depth of human corruptibility, with its consequent need for institutional checks on leaders, and the pain of social chaos.
Perhaps the answer is not to make an answer now, but to set up a process, a channel, for exploring what to do. Press reform could be the best arena for this, because there are justifications in Marxism and Maoism for freedom of expression (thus avoiding the thorny problem of the ``bourgeois'' and ``foreign'' taints of liberal democratic institutions). Press reform might serve as a channel now because it would not directly remove party leaders, but rather force them to submit to the prospect of public embarrassment, such as Li Peng faced on national TV. That is, it would put pressure on the elite, but not back them into a corner.
THE bad news is, China has been trying to formulate a press law for the past five or more years without success. Conservatives and reformers inside Deng Xiaoping's coalition have vied for a controlling hand in the forthcoming regulations (three competing versions are now being circulated), and as of last year one leading journalist, Liu Zunqi of the English-language China Daily, concluded that it might be better to muddle along without a press law, since ``when we have the press law, we may not have a bit more freedom, but probably a bit more restriction.''
Still, there is growing consensus in China that a freer press is one way to work on China's political reform and to address the discontents of the public. The question remains, however, does China today have a Great Yu to channel the floods?