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Western Press Review: Those Inscrutable, Changeable Chinese

Prague, 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Two remarkable occurrences at China's Communist Party congress Saturday and yesterday attracted widespread Western press commentary. Analysts and commentators interpret these occurrences as portents of major and irreversible change. First, Chinese President Jiang Zemin announced a number of measures for freeing the economy, including the selling of shares in many of the 13,000 state enterprises. Then, a letter purportedly signed by a long-suppressed figure surfaced. It called for reexamination of the 4 June 1989, Tiananmen Square suppression. Following is a sampling of press reaction:

THE GUARDIAN: Such garage sales have proved disastrous in the former Soviet bloc

The congress was about economics, but the letter made it not exclusively so says today's editorial: "Somehow or other the alleged text of a letter by the former party chief Zhao Ziyang calling for a reassessment of the 1989 Beijing Massacre, when he was sacked, has filtered into the foreign media."

The editorial goes on to warn against premature celebration of a new Chinese enlightenment. It says: "Western diplomats in Beijing who were said on Saturday to be excited by the prospect of one of the biggest garage sales of state firms the world has ever seen are either very stupid or indifferent to the wellbeing of millions of Chinese workers. Such garage sales have proved disastrous in the former Soviet bloc. Reform of China's huge state sector is essential but must be managed with extreme care."

THE BOSTON GLOBE: How can the Chinese Communist Party call itself communist after a giant step down the capitalist road

The paper editorialized yesterday that the changes mean that China is emerging as a state no longer eligible to claim that it is communist. The newspaper said: "In Mao's China, 'capitalist roader' was such an opprobrious term that anyone in public life so labeled could feel the hot breath of purge on the political wind. Yet today, 21 years after Mao's death, the China of Jiang Zemin has decided to take a giant step down the capitalist road by selling off most of its 13,000 state-owned industries. It is but the latest lifting of socialism's dead hand from the economy that China has been attempting since Mao's died, but it will have enormous social consequences. State ownership of the means of production is such a pillar of Marxist-Leninist theory that it is hard to imagine how the Chinese Communist Party can call itself communist after the move."

The editorial concluded: " 'Capitalist roader' is not yet a term of endearment in China, and the Chinese resist calling the selling off of state-owned industries privatization 'The shareholding system has nothing to do with privatization,' explained a party semanticist. Selling shares in state-owned companies, it is just another way of achieving public ownership of industry. Wall Street could not have put it any better."

THE NEW YORK TIMES: The subject of Tiananmen Square has a way of popping up when leaders least desire it

News analysist Seth Faison writes from Beijing that the surfacing of Zhao Ziyang's purported letter roils anew Tiananmen Square waters that never really have settled, even after eight years. Faison writes: "The mere mention of 4 June, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, still has deep political resonance in this city, and the subject has a way of popping up when leaders least desire it. (Yesterday), in the midst of the Communist Party Congress, a highly unusual letter circulated in Beijing to challenge the official orthodoxy that the killing of hundreds of demonstrators that day was a justifiable suppression of a counterrevolutionary rebellion. The letter was signed with the name of Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted as head of the Communist Party just days before the massacre, who became a hero to the millions of protesters at Tiananmen and who has been held under house arrest ever since."

The writer adds: "The letter pointedly reminded the leadership how powerfully 4 June still smolders in the public mind, and its appearance drew attention to a gaping hole in the formal agenda of the congress. The Tiananmen Square incident was not even (on the congress' agenda) for discussion."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The letter is a message from a political ghost

In his news analysis Rone Tempest calls the Zhao Ziyang letter a message from a political ghost. It's a reminder of the continued power of the Tiananmen memory, Tempest says. He writes: "A rethinking of Tiananmen could have heavy domestic political consequences." And adds: "Most political analysts (believe) that Chinese President and current party leader Jiang Zemin would likely not be touched by a reassessment, since he was party chief in Shanghai at the time of the military action and not involved in the decision to bring in the troops."

FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: If Marx were among the 2,000 delegates, he hardly would believe his ears.

Commentator Harald Maass writes today that formerly simple ideology is growing complex when Chinese leaders can describe share capitalism as a form of corporate organization appropriate to Marxism. Czech President Vaclav Havel once dismissed the term "capitalism" as a Marxist coinage. Maass says that Marx would be disconcerted to hear it called also a Marxist concept.

Maass comments: "There was a time in China when everything was much more simple. Capitalists were class enemies. Mao Zedong was the Great Chairman. In the universities, lectures were based on the works of (Marx) and (Lenin). Non-official trade was regarded as feudal exploitation and the million-strong army of blue ants manned the state companies.

"A handful of intellectuals founded the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai 76 years ago. The party is currently meeting for its 15th party congress. If Marx were among the 2,000 delegates, he hardly would believe his ears. The guidelines which head of state and Party chief Jiang Zemin handed to the comrades for the next century would have been a worthy contribution for a meeting of industrialists. The 71-year-old veteran preached a reduction of jobs and an increase in efficiency in state enterprises."

The commentary concludes: "Jiang Zemin did his best at the conference to dispel delegates' fears. He said China's system was in no way capitalist but, on the contrary, was -- in the words of the new dialectic -- in the opening stage of socialism. That could easily last for 'more than 100 years.'"

DIE WELT: Now I know what happens at secret debates: nothing.' "

Commentator Johnny Erling describes the reaction to the new China of foreign journalists admitted for the first time to selected party congress debates. They dozed off.

Here are excerpts from Erling's commentary: "Welcoming foreign journalists in the banqueting hall of the Great Hall of the People, Jia Qinglin, the Chinese capital's newly-appointed Communist Party leader, said: 'Welcome in the name of the Fujian delegates.' Sixty Beijing delegates laughed. Jia, 57, was until recently Party secretary of the coastal province of Fujian. Then China's Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin made him Party boss in Beijing, which temporarily seemed to have slipped his memory. Journalists pressed into the hall, the wall of which was decorated with a gigantic wallhanging. For the first time ever, nine of the 31 Chinese provinces allowed foreign correspondents to follow selected debates. The sole drawback was that the pressmen were not allowed to go about their profession inasmuch as questions were neither envisaged nor welcomed."

The commentary concludes: "Chinese Sunday papers praised the Party for its new-found openness, tiring though it may have been. As one visibly exhausted British journalist commented: 'The Communist Party has given us a look-in at its secret debates for the first time. And now I know what happens: nothing.' "