China Power Struggle Perils Hard-Line Premier

Times Staff Writer

A renewed power struggle is under way at the top levels of the Communist Party of China, with senior leader Deng Xiaoping trying to strengthen the position of those who advocate market-oriented economic reforms.

In the balance is the fate of hard-line Premier Li Peng, whose commitment to reform is often questioned.

Li appeared to have been strengthened by last month’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, which led to the ouster of Li’s key rival, the reformist Zhao Ziyang, from the post of party general secretary. But Li’s advocacy of the use of troops, which Zhao opposed, has made the premier so intensely unpopular that he is widely regarded as a liability for the government.

There is a growing likelihood, according to foreign observers in Beijing and reports in the Hong Kong press, that Li eventually will be dismissed to appease domestic and international anger over the June 3-4 massacre that took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.


“There’s no question the current leadership arrangement is temporary,” one American expert on China, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an interview this week after wide-ranging discussions in Beijing with diplomats and others.

In a detailed analysis carried a few days ago in the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Bao, Yan Jiaqi, the exiled former director of the Political Science Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Deng is seeking to limit the power of Li and President Yang Shangkun by supporting leaders more clearly committed to his decade-old program of economic reform and opening to the world.

The chief beneficiaries of Deng’s support, according to Yan and many foreign observers in Beijing, are the new party general secretary, Jiang Zemin, 62, and a new member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Li Ruihuan, 54, both of whom were promoted at a meeting June 24 of the 170-member Communist Party Central Committee.

Deng’s basic formula for modernizing China calls for firm political dictatorship by the Communist Party paired with an opening to the world and gradual introduction of market-oriented economic reforms. Both Jiang and Li Ruihuan, who had been the top officials in the coastal cities of Shanghai and Tianjin, respectively, have records showing support for this combination of policies.


Within the party, however, some of those who support an unyielding dictatorship question the wisdom of extensive use of market forces, while some who favor economic reform also support more rapid relaxation of political controls. Over the last decade, Deng has repeatedly thrown his weight back and forth between different factions to keep the government on his preferred course of political toughness and economic flexibility.

Yan, in his article, described Deng as a dictator whose prestige is weakening and who therefore can maintain his personal power only by balancing leadership groups against one another.

Yan described China’s top leadership as split between a “Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, (Vice Premier) Yao Yilin clique” and others who are opposed to the dominance of these leaders. Included in the opposition are Jiang, Li Ruihuan and two other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Qiao Shi and Song Ping.

Deng specifically warned Li Peng and Yao that they must accept Jiang’s central role, according to Yan, who was once a key adviser to Zhao. Yan fled to Hong Kong and then to France after the June 3-4 massacre, and is now in the United States to attend a Chinese students conference in Chicago. Even as a dissident in overseas exile, however, he presumably still has connections with many people in the party and government who could be sources.


Yan also said Deng has taken steps to distance himself from responsibility for the killings. He said Deng recently declared at a high-level meeting that “there must be a limit for the execution of people.”

“After the excessive killings and arrests,” Yan said, “what Deng said is tantamount to telling people that he himself does not stand for excessive killings and arrests--that he does not hold the responsibility.”

Yan also offered a prediction: “In order to morally justify the military suppression, Deng must not stop at trying to smash the student and pro-democracy movement. Sooner or later, he has to find a scapegoat (for the killings). Sooner or later . . . Li Peng will be sacrificed. . . . The stepping down of Li Peng is inevitable. It is a question of time.”

In a clear reference to Li Ruihuan, who is widely viewed as a politician still on his way up, Yan said that “among the new members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Deng has already chosen the candidate for premier.”


Yan’s analysis is more detailed than most, but there is a widespread belief among foreigners and Chinese in Beijing that the current leadership is inherently unstable.

Although a severe crackdown is under way against leading reformist intellectuals who supported the pro-democracy movement--a warrant has been issued for Yan’s arrest--many leaders closely associated with Zhao remain in high office.

Hard-liners have not yet been able to expel Zhao from the party or bring him to trial for alleged counterrevolutionary crimes, steps that might also serve to weaken many of his longtime allies. Zhao reportedly remains under a lenient form of house arrest inside Zhongnanhai, the red-walled leadership compound.

Thus, the government and party are bitterly split at least three ways: among those like Zhao, who would prefer to accelerate the pace of reform and extend it to the political sphere; those like Jiang, who favor Deng’s formula of political dictatorship matched with economic reform, and hard-liners like Li Peng, who seek to slow the pace of reform. Personal ambitions that are at least as important as ideological conflicts add to the complexity of the situation.


The foremost question is Deng’s health. The martial-law crackdown and its aftermath made it clear that he remains the ultimate arbiter of Chinese politics. But Deng, who will be 85 next month, is reported to have a serious prostate problem, possibly cancer, and a variety of other ailments that raise doubts about how long he can continue to exercise power.

The events of this spring and summer--the student demonstrations, the massacre and the appointment of Jiang as head of the party--are seen as one round in the succession battle. Another round has begun.