BEIJING -- Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, surveying the massive protests during his historic visit to China this week, said Wednesday that he is now more convinced than ever of socialism's need for fundamental political and economic reforms, however painful the changes might be.
The demonstrations, which on Wednesday drew hundreds of thousands of students and workers to Tian An Men Square in central Beijing to demand greater democracy, are evidence of a major transition occurring in Chinese politics, Gorbachev said.
"Renewal is a painful process," he said, referring to changes both here and in the Soviet Union, "but this reaffirms that it is a profound change, not cosmetic repairs.
A 'Turnaround' for Socialism
"Some people regard this as 'the crisis of socialism.' I believe actually that it reflects a very serious turnaround in world socialism. This process is under way in varying degrees in the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries, and its main thrust is revealing the potential of socialism through democratization. . . ."
The protests, which began a month ago, grew dramatically in size with Gorbachev's visit to Beijing this week--almost as if his presence in the Chinese capital as one of the leading reformers of socialism had inspired the 2,000 students who began a hunger strike last Saturday demanding a full dialogue with the government on political reform.
But the demonstrations, continuing day and night and paralyzing much of central Beijing, have largely eclipsed Gorbachev's visit to China, although the trip normalized Sino-Soviet relations after 30 years of hostility.
So great were the crowds Wednesday that the Soviet leader was unable to tour the Forbidden City or to hold a planned press conference or attend a special performance of the Beijing opera that had been scheduled in the Great Hall of the People. And when he traveled out to the Great Wall, his car was mobbed by well-wishers whenever it slowed in traffic.
'Dynamic Rhythm' in China
"We have seen the dynamic rhythm of China's public life," Gorbachev remarked wryly, shrugging off the schedule changes, which were more an embarrassment to his hosts than himself, as "a political need."
Today, Gorbachev is to visit the industrial center of Shanghai, China's largest city, and then return to Moscow.
Trying to avoid direct comment on the protests, he expressed sympathy with the mounting demand for an open dialogue on political reform and also with the need for "responsible and disciplined" change.
"A political dialogue is under way, a difficult dialogue between the leaders and the people," he told reporters after his press conference had been transferred to the heavily guarded state guest house where he stayed in Beijing.
"We should wish them success in finding solutions to their problems, solutions that will make it possible for the Chinese people to proceed along the path of reforms."
Letter From Students
In an interview on Chinese television, Gorbachev acknowledged a letter from 6,000 student protesters, describing it as "a very warm letter, full of feelings of support for perestroika "--his program of restructuring Soviet society. The comment was widely regarded as certain to boost the demonstrators and their cause.
In a spirited defense of perestroika and glasnost , or political openness, Gorbachev provided further arguments for the students.
"In a one-party system, we need democracy and glasnost to identify, to take into account and to harmonize various interests," he said. "There are limits, and whatever is inconsistent or damaging to our overall choice for socialism is resisted.
"But since we believe the potential of socialism is limitless, glasnost and democracy should also be limitless, but they must go together with responsibility, discipline and education."
A political commentator in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda argued that the protesting students were losing the support of the people because their protest was increasingly disrupting everyday life here.
Gorbachev said that similar events in the Soviet Union--which has been rocked by anti-government demonstrations, nationalist protests and a growing debate over virtually all government policies over the past year and a half--had convinced him that greater democracy, more glasnost and faster-paced perestroika are the correct approach to the country's problems.
"I am certain that we are on the right road," he said. "And this is not only my conviction. The (parliamentary) elections confirmed that this was the conviction of the people as well. The election was really a referendum on what they think of perestroika ."
The reforms under way in most socialist countries, he said, "cannot proceed easily or simply and may very well be painful, but we need them because they breathe new life into socialism. If anyone thinks, however, that this is leading us to discard socialism on the ash heap of history, they will be disappointed again."
Gorbachev said he discussed the Soviet Union's reforms, particularly its bold moves on the political front, with Chinese government and party officials, including Deng Xiaoping, the senior Chinese leader, and had listened to their explanations of similar Chinese moves.
The Soviet leadership made political reform its priority, he noted, after finding that its initial efforts at changing the country's economic structure were frustrated--as reforms have repeatedly been for the past 30 years there--by the "administrative command" system that gives control over the whole to the bureaucracy and deprives the system of vitality.
The Soviet Union, as a result, appears to have made considerably more progress in political reform--and its consumers are complaining bitterly about the failure of perestroika to improve supplies of food and consumer goods.
But China started with economic reform, moving over the past decade toward what Beijing now describes as "market socialism." The Chinese leadership, convinced of the paramount need for "stability and unity," has moved very cautiously on political reform.
Gorbachev reiterated the Soviet pledge not to interfere in China's domestic politics and not to demand adherence to a party line set in Moscow for Communist parties in Europe and elsewhere.
Hopes China Reforms Succeed
"I would not take upon myself the responsibility or the role to pass judgment, and I would not seek to assess what is going on in this country," he said of the crisis here. "I believe this is for the Chinese to do, and for the Chinese Communist Party. . . .
"We are interested in seeing their reforms succeed with as few losses and as little pain as possible."
The Soviet and Chinese Communist parties have begun discussions, he added, on a program of extensive exchanges so that they can draw upon each other's experience in political and economic reforms.
TODAY'S SCHEDULE OF ACTIVITIES 1:30 p.m.--Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev calls on Jiang Zemin, the head of Shanghai's Municipal Communist Party.
1:45 p.m.--Gorbachev meets Shanghai's Mayor Zhu Rongji.
3 p.m.--Gorbachev lays wreath at Pushkin memorial.
4:20 p.m.--Gorbachevs visit suburban Shanghai enterprises to review Chinese economic reforms.
6:15 p.m.-- Gorbachevs leaves Shanghai on return flight to Moscow.
The CBS Evening News will be broadcast from Beijing during the summit. The CBS program "48 Hours" Thursday evening will be broadcast live from Beijing. The Cable News Network will also broadcast from Beijing during its International Hour (noon PDT), Newswatch (3 p.m. PDT) and CNN Evening News (10 p.m. PDT).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times