Chill political winds are blowing through Beijing, matching the Chinese capital's fierce winter weather. The abrupt resignation last month of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and the reimposition of party orthodoxy on intellectual expression suggest to many the end of China's recent flirtation with political reform.
Senior leader Deng Xiaoping's endless assurances to foreign visitors of policy continuity and political stability seem much less credible. If Deng cannot guarantee the line of succession while still vigorous and active, pessimistic observers assert, then the longer-term prospects for China's modernization and close relations with the West appear even bleaker.
Such a grim assessment seems overstated. Hu Yaobang had been outspoken in his support of literary and artistic freedom, but he was not a respected figure within the leadership. Argumentative, impetuous and prone to ill-informed interventions in both domestic and foreign affairs, Hu seemed more a liability than an asset to Deng's long-term political agenda. Indeed, Deng's unwavering support for Hu, until the December student protests, had been a source of puzzlement.
The contrast between Hu and his apparent successor as party leader, Premier Zhao Ziyang, could not be more telling. Hu, in fact, may have owed his position largely to his close relationship with Deng, dating from 1941.
Although Zhao's personal links to Deng are not as close as Hu's, the premier is a figure of unquestioned competence and accomplishment. Zhao, not Hu, presided over the decollectivization of agriculture while party secretary in Szechwan Province in the late 1970s, laying the groundwork for China's extraordinary economic performance of the past half-dozen years. Zhao, not Hu, oversaw the streamlining of China's sprawling governmental apparatus, and implemented the politically delicate tasks of restructuring and reform of China's planned economy. Zhao, not Hu, upgraded the political role of outside specialists as government advisers for agricultural, industrial, scientific and international policy. And Zhao, not Hu, directed efforts to enhance the role of market forces in China's agricultural and industrial development.
The disparity between Hu and Zhao in the international arena was even more pronounced. Hu had not visited a non-communist country until he traveled to Japan in late 1983. Despite repeated attempts to develop a more statesmanlike image, his gaffes and misstatements repeatedly embarrassed other officials.
These blunders were most evident in Sino-American relations, and seemed indicative of an underlying antipathy toward the United States. During President Reagan's April, 1984, trip to China, Hu was invited to Washington, but since that time had repeatedly turned aside the invitation. In April, 1985, he insisted (in contrast to long-standing U.S. policy) that the United States had promised that U.S. naval vessels with nuclear arms would not enter Chinese ports, delaying a U.S. port call for 18 months. In May, 1985, Hu threatened a blockade of Taiwan unless Taipei agreed to Beijing's terms for reunification. And last April, Hu warned that China "would not tolerate" indefinitely U.S. policy toward Taiwan, which he described as "not friendly to China."
Zhao's emergence as an international figure has been much smoother, and did not raise equivalent doubts about his support for closer Sino-American relations. Since first meeting President Reagan at the Cancun summit in October, 1981, the premier has impressed all who have met him. His January, 1984, visit to the United States paved the way for subsequent breakthroughs with the United States on trade, investment, and technology transfer. With the possible exception of Deng, no Chinese official is more closely associated with China's efforts to expand economic, political and technological contacts with the outside world.
Zhao's political prospects, however, will be determined not by his stature abroad, but by his reputation and demeanor at home. His prudent, conciliatory leadership style and his wide-ranging administrative experience provide the appropriate mix to steer China through the turbulent waters of further reform. Unlike his predecessor, Zhao is not given to bold or exaggerated political actions; he is a doer, not a dreamer. Practicality and incrementalism appear the order of the day, rather than a political "great leap forward" that cannot be sustained.