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LIKE MAO ZEDONG BEFORE HIM, Deng Xiaoping has been forced to abandon a hand-picked successor and loyal supporter for committing grave political errors. Deng should have the personal prestige, like Mao again, to ride out this considerable reverse. But the history of Mao's cultural revolution should warn Deng that the demotion of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang may have started the rot not stopped it.
Mao, too, led a radical coalition committed to deep reform of the system. He, too, was forced to sacrifice top aides in the interests of national stability. He found the process difficult to halt. The coalition eroded, the reforms foundered, if not immediately, then after the death of their originator.
The appointment of Premier Zhao Ziyang to succeed Hu ad interim is designed to symbolize a continued commitment to reform. For the moment Deng has only conceded the need to restore discipline among the students in particular and the intellectual community generally. But this means a reemphasis on ideological orthodoxy. The "hundred flowers" of intellectual diversity and academic speculation may be cut down, as they were 30 years ago in an "anti-rightist campaign."
And where will all the flowers go? Possibly to the graveyards of the economic reforms. The record of the anti-rightist campaign as well as the experience of the attempt to limit the spread of Western and "bourgeois" ideas, the drive against "spiritual pollution" only three years ago, indicates that such movements inevitably spill over into the economic sphere.
OF COURSE, THERE ARE profound differences between the programs of Deng and Mao which give Deng's a better chance for survival. The cultural revolution unleashed an orgy of violence and civil strife which Deng is committed to avoid, an understandable objective in a land of a billion people and hence Hu's fall. Moreover, Mao's call for the spiritual transformation of his subjects into selfless collectivists flew in the face of human nature and Chinese reality. Deng's agricultural reforms, by contrast, have unleashed peasant energies, generated massive increases in outputs and doubled rural living standards.
The communist revolution was won in the countryside, but political power now rests in the urban areas, precisely where the reforms have generated less enthusiasm. To older workers in state industries, the demand for greater efficiency, with the threat of bankruptcy as the goad, presages more work with less job-security. Government bureaucrats and factory party committees resent and dislike the price rises which the partial freeing of the market has already meant.
Conservative ideologues should also be able to capitalize on an uneasiness among some party members that setting up stock exchanges is not what socialism should be about. So if Zhao Ziyang is unable to take new measures to maintain the momentum of the reform program, it could be undermined by wary supporters and beneficiaries taking shelter for fear of political counter-attacks.
Equally at risk are the political and institutional reforms which Deng has initiated over the past eight years. He had sought to put an end to class struggle in favour of economic development, the century-old search for national wealth and power. But a struggle between "bourgeois" and "socialist" ideas is now inevitable. Can it be contained by newborn and fragile "legal" norms? And how will Deng sustain his opening to the West, the alleged source of China's "spiritual pollution?" As important, Deng's preemptory behaviour in the present crisis has fractured the image of a new, un-Maoist leadership style that he had cultivated, as well as the carefully crafted succession structure he had put in place.
Moreover, widespread disillusion with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought as providing any kind of guide for China's modernization deprives the party of its basis of legitimacy and ideologues of any weapon in their fight for the soul of young China. Even Deng has had to mention force as a way of subduing the students, who have been, ironically, among his strongest backers. If he has to employ it, that would be a tragic denouement for the most hopeful period since Mao's revolutionary victory in 1949.
To maintain the strategic vision of his revolution, Deng will have to summon up all his reserves of political capital and tactical skills. At 82, will he have the time to deploy them?
Roderick MacFarquhar is Professor of Government and Director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. He is the author of the trilogy, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, of which two volumes have so far appeared, published by Columbia University Press.
(This article appeared in somewhat different form in last week's Newsweek International.)