Sherlock Holmes and the case of youth unrest in Marxland
THERE'S something positively Sherlock Holmesian about the aftermath of the youth protests that have shaken the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties in recent weeks. In each country's party hierarchy we now have something like Holmes's famous case of the hound that didn't bark. Events that haven't happened in the Soviet Union and China are almost as interesting as those that have - including even the forced abdication of the leader of the Chinese party.
Take Moscow first. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has been promising an important meeting of the Central Committee of his party. That is to be the session at which he further solidifies his control over the Central Committee and its ruling Politburo. But the meeting keeps on not happening.
Since no Western intelligence service can tell the world exactly what goes on at Politburo sessions, only the principals know what is delaying the collective leaders who cautiously back Mr. Gorbachev. But informed specialists suspect that worries about letting economic reform get out of control are causing a prolonged leadership debate. Especially worries about the unsettling news from the non-Russian eastern flanks of the Communist heartland - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and China. There is some evidence that opponents of reforms initiated by Gorbachev used his own doctrine of glasnost (openness) to hype the danger of Kazakh youth protests.
One can imagine that the conservative Yegor K. Ligachev, Gorbachev's No. 2 in the Politburo, has been warning the others since the Dec. 19 youth protests in Kazakhstan that it is better to slow the pace of economic reforms - and not even to flirt with political reforms. Four months of Chinese student protests and last week's ousting of party General Secretary Hu Yaobang must have provided Mr. Ligachev and lower level party bosses resisting reform with even stronger cautionary material.
More on that later. Now, let's take a look at the dogs that have not barked in China. The removal of Hu from power appears to have been a finely balanced act on the part of the country's real leader, Deng Xiaoping. For the moment, Hu remains a member of the Politburo. More important, none of the regional Hu-style party leaders has so far been ousted. Other shoes may drop. But so far they have not.
Deng is even more of a master at tacking than the skippers dueling for the America's cup off Fremantle, Australia. He has come back from political limbo twice himself. He has also shown great finesse at moving China forward by alternating liberalization and tightening-up over the past seven years. He used the promise of economic benefits from reform to oust Hua Guofeng and install Hu Yaobang at the helm of the party. After that he tacked to the conservative side. At least two more liberal-followed-by-restrictive switches followed. Now Deng has had to tack once more in the conservative direction, as military leaders and hard-line party stalwarts worried that student unrest would get out of hand and undermine the party's hold on the country.
It is probable that each time Deng has reined in the pace of reform he has done so out of personal belief. He appears to feel that China needs economic and science/technology modernization and that this calls for decentralization of management. But he also seems to believe that the Communist Party should maintain centralized political control.
These two concepts repeatedly conflict as China moves forward economically. Party political control edges over into economic meddling. It seems likely that if China's nonbarking dog continues silent - liberal Hu followers remain in power at the provincial level - collisions between the two concepts will occur. One such collision may be expected over proposals to loosen political control over price structures in the cities.
Students may then be encouraged to press once again for more rapid change. China has a long tradition of student protest. (A protest in the second century A.D. brought 30,000 students into the streets of the capital.)
When the Kremlinologists of Harvard's Russian Research Center met over lunch last week with the Sinologists from the neighboring Fairbank Center, they mulled over many of these ideas. They kept coming back to the impact of the brief Kazakh dissent and the longer Chinese student dissent on the restless Gorbachev's drive to open the Soviet Union to outside technology and economic streamlining.
In that respect, few saw any good news for the Soviet leader in the lessons some Soviet commentators were drawing from China's turmoil. Among those lessons: that China's new open-door policy to the West - including joint ventures and economic zones for Western firms - led to the infiltration of dangerous capitalist ideas. It doesn't appear that foot-dragging party leaders actually fear youth unrest might threaten political control (as it did for Charles de Gaulle and Lyndon Johnson in the West). But for some, the fact that young workers in Alma Ata joined Kazakh students in the streets provides a powerful argument against loosening the reins too much.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.