New Leaders, Reforms to Be Weighed at Chinese Party Congress

Times Staff Writer

Through the ups and downs of his long career, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a practical-minded slogan world-famous: "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice."

The slogan captured the essence of Deng's argument with the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who stressed being "red" over being "expert."

Since emerging as China's paramount leader in 1978, Deng has acted on his philosophy by promoting market-oriented reforms and openness to the outside world, twin policies that are aimed at achieving China's century-old goal of national wealth and power.

At a Communist Party congress that opens Sunday in Beijing, Deng, 83, now aims at winning approval for personnel and ideological changes intended to ensure that his vision survives his ultimate departure.

The congress--the 13th in the 66-year history of the Chinese Communist Party--is expected to elevate to the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo a successor generation dominated by reformist proteges of Deng.

Orthodox to Retire

Diplomats and other analysts in Beijing and Hong Kong expect that several elderly leaders with orthodox views who have resisted some of the reforms will step down from their current posts. Although these so-called "conservatives" are expected to retain considerable influence, their semi-retirement would lessen one of the impediments to intensification of reforms.

The congress, expected to meet for about 10 days, will also approve political reports intended to provide the framework for party and government policy for the next five years.

While the reforms of the past nine years have boosted economic growth and the standard of living, their ideological justification has sometimes seemed shaky. This has left an opening for conservative attacks and helped raise doubts in China and abroad about the stability of the new policies.

The reformist successors, headed by acting party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who is also China's premier, have begun unveiling a new ideological argument intended to provide a firm theoretical foundation for their policies.

New Turn to Phrase

Some observers have described the reformists' theory--to which the congress is supposed to give a stamp of approval--with a new turn of Deng's old phrase: "If the cat catches mice, it must be red."

The new ideology is based on the idea that China bypassed a true capitalist period--envisioned by Karl Marx as a prerequisite for communism--and remains in only the initial stage of socialism.

Because of this, the key task of the Communist Party is to develop the economy. Virtually anything that contributes to economic growth--including all sorts of techniques commonly associated with capitalist systems--can be legitimately adopted, as long as the ultimate authority of the party remains unchallenged.

The official New China News Agency, in an authoritative article last week explaining the new theory, said that "while many people generally welcome the measures of reform as bringing real benefits to them, many feel uncertain whether a new measure is 'socialist or capitalist' by nature."

'Dogmatic Notions'

"The task of furnishing a convincing answer to this question is a challenge to the Chinese economists, for many people have been deeply troubled by the dogmatic notions of the past," it added.

Many Chinese economists have now concluded that market mechanisms, traditionally associated with capitalist systems, and central planning, traditionally associated with socialism, are "neutral means and methods that do not determine the basic economic system of a society," the article said.

Economists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have stated that China's goal should be a "multi-ownership system," or mixed economy, "centering around public ownership," it said.

"The concept that China is still in the elementary stage of socialism is not only the key to understanding the sweeping economic reforms, but also is paving the way for the coming political structural reforms that are expected to be unfolded in the wake of the 13th National Party Congress," according to the article.

In the official Chinese context, political reform and increased democracy--subjects due to be discussed at the party congress--do not mean movement toward a multi-party system.

Instead, these terms refer to matters such as separation of party and administrative functions in the government and the economy, adherence to legal procedures and greater grass-roots participation in political affairs.

Could Improve Efficiency

These are seen as changes that could improve efficiency and protect the rights of ordinary people by limiting the power of officials to make arbitrary decisions.

Both Deng and Zhao have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that the personnel changes and political reports to be announced at the congress will push forward the policies of openness and reform.

But how much of a boost these policies get will depend on how decisively the reformers come out on top, and this is not yet clear, both in terms of who will get the top slots and what the promotions will signify.

Most of the personnel changes to be announced at the congress have already been worked out privately, however. There seems little doubt that Zhao, 68, will be confirmed as general secretary of the party, and that several vice premiers who have worked closely with him in carrying out economic reforms will get seats on the Standing Committee.

The 1,936 delegates to the congress will elect new members to the party Central Committee, which has about 200 members. The standard procedure then would be for the new Central Committee--in a meeting immediately following the congress that in effect is an extension of it--to elect new members to the Politburo, which currently has 20 seats. The new membership of the Politburo Standing Committee also would be formally approved at this time.

46 Million Members

The party congress, which is a gathering of representatives of the 46-million-member Chinese Communist Party, technically does not have authority to appoint a new premier, president or National People's Congress chairman. But it is expected to indicate who will be confirmed in those positions by the National People's Congress when it meets next year.

Vice Premier Li Peng, 58, a Soviet-trained engineer, is widely viewed by diplomats and others as likely to be promoted to premier, a post Zhao is expected to give up.

The adopted son of former Premier Chou En-lai, Li supports a greater role for central planning than do Zhao and other more reformist leaders. Partly because of this, Li is usually identified as part of the so-called conservative faction.

Some diplomats and Chinese intellectuals believe that Li's elevation to the premiership would put a brake on Zhao's ability to push reforms forward.

Many ordinary Chinese, on the other hand, look at top-level politics more in generational terms. Especially among younger people, who often view things in this framework, some believe that change is being held back by elderly leaders such as President Li Xiannian, 78, Politburo Standing Committee member Chen Yun, 82, National People's Congress Chairman Peng Zhen, 85, and perhaps even Deng himself, who despite his reformist economic views is quite rigid on questions of ideological discipline.

Seen as Modernizer

In this view, Li Peng, as a relatively young man with a strong technical background, can be seen as someone from the modernizing younger generation who would work effectively with Zhao to implement reforms.

Deng apparently has reached agreement with Li Xiannian and Chen that the three of them will all step down from the Standing Committee.

Former General Secretary Hu Yaobang--the 72-year-old reformist leader who was removed from his post in January in a conservative backlash after pro-democracy student demonstrations--is also considered certain to lose his spot on the Standing Committee, although some observers believe he might retain a seat on the full Politburo.

Zhao thus would be the only member of the five-man Standing Committee to retain his seat. The vacancies are likely to be filled from a list of seven men: Vice Premiers Wan Li, 71; Yao Yilin, 70; Qiao Shi, 63; Tian Jiyun, 58; Li Peng; Politburo member Hu Qili, 58, and Yang Shangkun, 80, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Wan Li, Tian Jiyun and Hu Qili are seen as leading reformers closely associated with Zhao. Qiao Shi and Yao Yilin are harder to describe but are often viewed as somewhere in the center, and Yang Shangkun is perceived primarily as a military man who is totally loyal to Deng.

Contender for President

Scenarios circulating among diplomats, journalists and their Chinese sources generally peg Yang as the leading contender to replace Li Xiannian as president, and Wan as likely to become chairman of the National People's Congress after Peng leaves that post, which might not be until next year.

Deng is expected to retain his position as chairman of the party's Military Commission, which is equivalent to being commander in chief of the armed forces. In some ways, that position is the most powerful in China, and Deng's retention of it not only would reconfirm that he remains China's undisputed leader, but also could be considered an indication that the problem of succession has not been fully solved.

Some analysts believe that Deng would prefer to turn over the Military Commission slot to one of his reformist proteges but cannot because there is no suitable candidate acceptable to the military.

Another key question is what positions the three powerful elderly conservatives--Li Xiannian, Chen and Peng--will end up holding.

All three were allies of Deng when he was consolidating power in the late 1970s, and all three are committed to economic development and the establishment of a codified legal system.

Central Controllers

But they also lean toward central control in both the economic and ideological realms, and they have great influence simply from personal connections. If they retain positions of power--or ultimately outlive Deng--they can continue to resist some of the market-oriented reforms that Zhao would like to carry out.

Li Xiannian has said to foreign visitors that he wants to give up all his positions, retaining only routine party membership.

Chen, in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee seat, is expected to give up his position as head of the party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission, created by the last party congress five years ago to investigate cases of corruption and abuse of power. Chen may move over to the chairmanship of the Central Advisory Commission, a body of party elders currently headed by Deng.

Peng, the outgoing National People's Congress chairman, and vice premier Qiao have been mentioned as candidates to take over Chen's position at the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.

Potentially Influential Posts

These two positions, while probably not as important as seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, carry enough potential influence that if Chen and Peng were to hold them and outlive Deng, the two conservatives could still play important roles in shaping the post-Deng era.

While day-to-day political power is held by members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the premier and a few other top leaders, the makeup of the full Politburo and Central Committee is of great importance in determining the long-term balance of power between advocates of different policies.

One of the greatest guarantees that China will move further and faster along the road of openness and reform would be for younger reformists to win solid domination of these two bodies.

But at least in the case of the Central Committee, many of the new members are likely to be people whose backgrounds and views are unfamiliar both to the Chinese public and Western analysts. Even after the names are known, only time will tell what the decisions really mean.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World