MOSCOW -- No one has watched the crisis in China with greater concern than Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, for in it he can see some of his compatriots' worst fears for what could go wrong here with his ambitious program of political, economic and social reforms.
Already there are warnings from the radicals to his left that ultra-conservatives in the Soviet Communist Party hierarchy, the military and the police would like a crackdown on the new political movements here and might even stage a provocation to justify harsh action.
Leaders 'Getting Scared'
"I am afraid that something like what is happening in China could happen in the Soviet Union," Andrei D. Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and longtime human rights activist, said over the weekend while on a visit to the Netherlands. "The political activity of the masses has increased greatly in the Soviet Union, and the political leadership is getting scared.
"Mikhail Gorbachev must gather enough common sense and realism, not to create new causes for conflict, but to solve the outstanding problems instead. That is the only way to avoid a disaster. Our country, too, is on the brink of catastrophe."
But from the right, too, there were also strong words during the recent session of the new Congress of People's Deputies about the growing dangers of "disorder," "chaos" and "anarchy" in Soviet society as a result of the increased political freedom and the relaxation of the strict social discipline of the past.
"The purpose of the reform is not to tear down the socialism we have been building for 70 years, but to strengthen it," a local party official from central Russia said. "We have seen in other countries how unscrupulous political maneuverers, some of them the undisguised opponents of socialism, have taken advantage of the party's pursuit of reforms and pushed the nation into crisis. That must not happen here. The party must remain in control."
Whether he was speaking of China in 1989--or Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Hungary in 1956--was unclear, but he drew loud applause from the conservative wing of the Congress.
For Gorbachev, there have been three other concerns, diverse but all serious, as the crisis in China has grown:
-- In his pursuit of detente with the West, Gorbachev has used perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya, as his own domestic reforms are known, to help break down the Soviet Union's "enemy image" and thus to win a hearing for his bold foreign policy innovations.
No Longer a Threat
Gorbachev's approach has been to show the West that communism is changing internally, no longer threatens countries with other political systems and that Moscow's domestic preoccupations make it a better neighbor and more reliable partner in international relations.
The brutality of the Chinese authorities' crackdown, shown to the rest of the world on television, have already weakened Soviet claims that its reformation will bring "socialism with a human face," according to some Soviet political observers.
-- China's political turmoil through the decade-long Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, added considerably to international tensions, particularly in Asia, and made the resolution of conflicts more difficult, if not impossible.
The country's relative stability, until now, under senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, had brought a gradual but quite significant improvement in relations among the major powers of the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, India, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Could Cause Damage
Referring to this, Gorbachev told a press conference in Bonn last week: "All of us want the profound reforms and changes in that great country not to fail. That could cause major damage to the process of improving relations in the world."
-- The Soviet Union has an additional stake in the Chinese crisis: the recent improvement in Sino-Soviet relations ending three decades of hostility between the two Communist giants and the desire to develop those new political and economic ties.
For this reason, while expressing his "regret over some aspects of what has happened" and his general concern over developments in China, Gorbachev remained cautious and circumspect, neither criticizing the Chinese authorities nor accepting their assertion that "counterrevolutionaries" were to blame for the trouble.
The Soviet press, after a few frankly worded reports on the first army actions to clear Tian An Men Square in Beijing, has given only the most succinct accounts of developments, usually emphasizing "efforts to stabilize the situation" and often quoting the official Chinese news media. The Soviet leadership, however, has watched much of the action in the Chinese capital on a Cable News Network monitor recently installed in the Kremlin.
Last week, China responded in a significant way. Vice Premier Tian Jiyun, a longtime associate of Zhao Ziyang, the embattled general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, met with Soviet Ambassador Oleg Troyanovsky to discuss "the current situation in China" aswell as economic cooperation, the official Soviet news agency Tass reported.
On Sunday, the government newspaper Izvestia carried a reassuring account of Chinese determination to continue its economic reforms and open further to the outside world. At the same time, the paper's correspondent reported, the Chinese leadership was maintaining its struggle against the "counterrevolutionaries."
This "balanced" position, as Gorbachev described it, has been much criticized here. Boris N. Yeltsin, the radical populist politician, decried as "wrong" a carefully worded statement adopted by the Congress of People's Deputies two weeks ago urging a solution that would "consolidate society" and expressing hope that "wisdom, sound reason and a balanced approach will prevail" but urging other countries not to interfere.
The Chinese army actions were "a crime against their own people and against humanity," Yeltsin said after the resolution was adopted. "It is necessary to give a principled, independent evaluation of a crisis like this."
But Georgy A. Arbatov, one of Gorbachev's top foreign policy advisers, justified Moscow's careful hedging. "Our relations with China have a difficult and controversial history," Arbatov said last week. "They are of tremendous importance to us in the world, and therefore we have to be very cautious and reasoned in our approach.
"We must abstain from any interference in their affairs. In the past, we tried to tell them what to do. . . . In this complex situation, we do not want to make easy judgments without all the facts."
Although only a little of the street fighting in Beijing has been shown on Soviet television, the developments in China over the last six weeks are having a major political impact here--not only are there many parallels between the Chinese and Soviet reforms but China's economic progress had been highlighted by Gorbachev's trip to Beijing in mid-May.
'A Great Deal of Hope'
"When Mikhail Gorbachev was in Beijing and the Chinese leadership seemed so tolerant of the students' democratic movement and the students themselves appeared so serious and intent on reforms," a senior Soviet foreign policy analyst said over the weekend, "we took a great deal of hope from it for our own reform process. . . .
"While our situations are quite different, of course, we now look at China and wonder, 'Could it happen here?' We would like to answer, 'No, absolutely not.' We are not sure. We are very worried, for China and for ourselves."
The fears are difficult to articulate but stem from the possibility, quite real and often debated, that Gorbachev's reforms will fail to improve living standards sufficiently and quickly enough to meet the expectations that they created.
Sober warnings of social and political unrest now come from senior government officials themselves. Leonid I. Abalkin, the new vice premier for economic policy, said last week that unless living standards are raised, Soviet society would be "destabilized" on a wide scale within two years and political and social conflict would be inevitable.
'Having Some Problems'
"We have already done all the things that the demonstrators in Beijing wanted--free the press, hold open elections, establish a real Parliament--through glasnost and demokratizatsiya, " a Soviet China-watcher said over the weekend. "We are having some problems with nationalist protests in a number of places, but these issues are being dealt with. . . .
"Where the Chinese pushed economic reforms first, we pursued political reforms. At the very least, that has given us a safety valve when popular discontent rises, and we hope it will give us the strength to push the economic reforms through next."
The relevance of China, other economists and political scientists added, is the way that its reforms unleashed powerful forces that could not be easily curtailed and the backlash that has now followed.
Gavriil Popov, a leading political economist and editor of the journal Problems of Economics, warned last week that Soviet political and economic reforms must be carefully coordinated to avoid the troubles that China is facing.
"In the future, if we go in for full development of pluralism in the economy . . . we will have to have a suitable political structure," he said at a press conference summing up the state of the Soviet economy. "If the political structure does not serve the forces that reforms will unleash, then there will be a clash between the reforms and the political system."
Moscow has already faced mass protests over the last year and found that it could handle them. More than 1 million Armenians participated last year in protests in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to back nationalist demands, and there have been similar protests, though smaller in size, in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and in the southern republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Only once, two months ago in Tbilisi, Georgia, did Soviet authorities panic. Troops, summoned by the local Georgian leadership, used clubs and a toxic gas to clear a city square, and 21 civilians were killed. The party and government leaders in Tbilisi were immediately replaced.
Ethnic passions have flared into riots--in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and currently in Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia--but these do not appear to have been directed against the government.
The scenario sketched by some political scientists, economists and sociologists on the left, however, envisions the greatest threat stemming from worsening shortages of food and consumer goods, rising inflation and perhaps unemployment, and rapidly diminishing confidence in the government's ability to solve the problems.
In this scenario, Gorbachev runs out of time, and the party swings sharply back to the old way of running the country, blaming the "excesses" of the reformers for the nation's problems and promising to restore order and getting the economy moving again through a more measured program of change.
Abalkin, who has served as director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Institute of Economics, said that the government had only "one to two years" to avoid massive political and social unrest, followed by a sharp swing to the right unless the government meets consumer expectations. "The form is unpredictable," he said, "but it is inevitable."