China today is witnessing the most far-reaching discussion in years of possible political liberalization, as the regime headed by Deng Xiaoping seeks to shore up support for its economic reform program.
What began two months ago as a limited campaign in the official press for greater freedom for writers, artists and scientists has developed into a broader search for some sort of reform of China's political system and for easing the restrictions on political dialogue.
It is not clear how long the Chinese leadership will permit the debate to continue. In past times of ideological ferment, particularly in 1956 and 1978, pressure for intellectual freedom and democracy was tolerated for a few months and then suppressed, and the most outspoken advocates went to prison.
There is no sign this time, either, that Peking is willing to countenance any direct challenge to Marxist ideology or the socialist system. But the regime is encouraging the idea that Marxism must adapt to changing conditions, and it is allowing unprecedented intellectual examination of Western political concepts. "Things have kind of hit a peak here now," a diplomat said.
Over the last few weeks, the Chinese leadership has permitted lengthy treatises to be published and meetings to be held on the subjects of freedom, the right to dissent, democracy and the necessity for checks and balances in government.
At a May symposium in Peking on China's political structure, political and social scientists agreed that the current system suffers from inadequate participation of citizens in decision-making. Furthermore, according to a Chinese press account of the symposium, some participants "recalled that Marx and Lenin had both said that leaders of proletarian power might become corrupted into masters instead of servants of their class, and that under such circumstances, workers might often be betrayed."
At another recent meeting attended by some leading officials of the Communist Party, some participants contended that "the relationship between Marxism and non-Marxism should not be one between the ruler and the ruled."
And Red Flag, the party's theoretical journal, last month published an essay by a leading intellectual questioning the wisdom of making Chinese students take and pass courses on Marxism.
Hu Sheng, president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote: "People cannot be forced to believe in Marxism. . . . Is this not coercive in nature? What are the results? Many students are not interested in the courses in normal times, but when an examination in the courses approaches, they just try to find the requisite 'standard' answers."
In a private meeting on June 14 with former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Hu Qili, a member of the Communist Party Politburo and the man being groomed by Deng and his senior aides as the future head of the party, said that "without major ideological and political changes, no reform is possible" in China, according to an official account of the meeting by the New China News Agency.
These discussions of the need for change have been accompanied by a slight relaxation in the political climate in China this spring.
Non-Marxist scholars from abroad are being invited to lecture on political subjects at Chinese universities. Ordinary Chinese not only appear more relaxed in speaking with foreigners, but they also in some instances--with the approval of China's Public Security Bureau--have invited foreigners to live in Chinese homes, a heretofore forbidden practice.
The willingness to discuss political change and tolerate dissent, some analysts believe, may be an outgrowth of the curious situation in which Deng and those within the Communist Party who support his market-oriented economic reforms find themselves this year.
Although they hold virtually all of the top party posts, their attempt to reform the Chinese economy has been slowed by resistance from within the party, by public concern about inflation and by difficulties in finding the proper ideological justification for their program.
There are still many within the 40-million-member party who favor a more orthodox economic approach and resist major changes in the established system of centralized state planning.
In 1985, these forces appeared to gain political support when the lifting of some price controls led to an inflation rate of more than 11% in Chinese cities, the highest since the Communists took control here in 1949.
They gained powerful high-level backing when Chen Yun, a senior party leader and economic planner who is a member of the Politburo's five-man Standing Committee, spoke out in defense of a planned economy and cautioned against "blindly allowing supply and demand to determine production."
There are other signs that the reformers allied with Deng are on the defensive. At the beginning of this year, Premier Zhao Ziyang announced that 1986 would be a year of "consolidation" in which there would be no major price increases or other economic changes.
More recently, the official Chinese press has acknowledged that the regime's efforts to give factory managers more independence are being blocked by party and government officials who have resisted giving up their power over industry.
Permitting a campaign for political reform may help Deng and his allies regain some of the momentum and public support that they lost when prices shot up last year. Furthermore, some analysts say, by pushing the idea of checks and balances on authority, the Deng forces may hope to undercut those lower-level party cadres seeking to preserve their control over the economy.
"Until now, economic reform has pushed ahead of political reform in China," a Western diplomat said. "The leadership is finding that when it tries to decentralize the economy, it runs up against political obstacles."
In an interview with the New China News Agency, Yan Jiaqi, head of the newly created Political Research Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that "all kinds of abuses in the cadre system have already interfered with the smooth implementation of the economic reforms." He said he feels that some sort of political reform in China is inevitable.
Previous Efforts Failed
The regime apparently hopes that by encouraging the exploration of new ideas, it may come up with intellectual ammunition to help defend against complaints within the party that the economic reforms are a departure from traditional Marxist ideology.
"Theoretical study lags behind the reform at present," Zhu Houze, the party's propaganda chief, said at a recent conference.
Previous efforts at political liberalization have been disastrous failures. In May, 1956, Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung encouraged intellectuals to feel free to voice their opinions. The party's policy, he said, is to "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend."
This "hundred flowers" campaign produced more criticism of the regime than Mao had expected. In early 1957, Mao began an "anti-rightist" campaign in which tens of thousands of intellectuals were arrested for heeding Mao's call to say what they thought. Many spent years in jail or in labor reform camps; some did not have their names cleared until after Mao's death in 1976.
When young activists began espousing the cause of political freedom in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79, Deng--then in the midst of a struggle for control of the party--at first sent a message of qualified support. Later, however, he denounced the movement, and the regime imposed new restrictions on political dissent, removing from the Chinese constitution the right to write wallposters.
Some of the leaders of that democracy movement, arrested in early 1979 shortly before the Democracy Wall in Peking was shut down, are still in prison.
The new push for political reform began this spring with an officially inspired campaign for writers, artists and scientists to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the "hundred flowers" campaign.
This revival of that ill-fated campaign puzzled some foreign analysts here. "Why the hell use that slogan, which sends shivers up people's spines?" a Western diplomat wondered.
By last month, some intellectuals were using the campaign as an opportunity to call for general academic freedom and even for changes in the way that Chinese universities are governed.
"The most important thing . . . is advancing academic democracy," one writer, Feng Lanrui, wrote in the Shanghai publication World Economic Herald. In the 1980s, he said, authorities specified "forbidden areas" of academic work and have organized campaigns of criticism against some intellectuals. He said the correctness of academic issues "should not be determined by the judgment of some leading members or authorities."
Still Viewed as Daring
Within the past few weeks, some writers have taken the final step of arguing that the concept of freedom and the right to dissent should not be confined to academic work but should be extended to politics.
"It is difficult to draw a clear distinction between academic and political issues," a writer named Yu Haocheng argued in the official party newspaper People's Daily. He wrote that the "hundred flowers" policy "was not implemented in the past basically because there was not enough political democracy."
Although these essays are being published in the official press, they are viewed as daring by many people.
"It still takes a lot of courage to put your name on something like this," a West European diplomat said. "They have to know that anything in writing goes into a file somewhere."
So far, no senior Chinese leader has given a full speech in support of the calls for freedom and democracy. And so far, the calls for political reform have provided few specifics on exactly what in China's political system might be changed.
Some Chinese sources have suggested that there might be an effort to give space in the official press to political critics or commentators, who would be free to register dissenting opinions concerning government policy.
In addition, these sources said, there may be an attempt to overhaul or improve China's legislature and judiciary. The National People's Congress meets only once a year and is widely considered to be simply a rubber stamp for the party leadership.
Whatever may happen in the future, the new "hundred flowers" campaign has already begun to attract attention from other Communist countries.
"I am confused," an East European analyst here said. "I don't know what to make of it. I am a Communist. I am a socialist. I'm sorry, but I know that no socialist country is going to let there be 100 opinions in politics."