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Gorbachev in China: The Communist Summit : Deng and Gorbachev: Great Reformers Battling Socialist Crises

May 15, 1989|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer: Parks was a correspondent in Beijing from 1979 to 1984.

MOSCOW — When Mikhail S. Gorbachev was chosen to head the Soviet Communist Party four years ago, the country was in a profound economic, political and moral crisis.

Although the Soviet Union ranked second only to the United States as a world power, its economy was in such poor shape that it was unable to feed, clothe or house its 285 million people adequately. A long-stagnant political structure had smothered all earlier attempts to resolve the crisis, and only corruption seemed able to produce results.

Gorbachev's prescription has been radical reform--the restructuring of the country's whole political, economic and social system--and the vast changes now under way across the Soviet Union are breaking the decades-old patterns that the world had come to know as socialism.

In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping assumed the Chinese leadership, his country, too, faced a national crisis of immense proportions in the wake of the calamitous Cultural Revolution there.

More than 100 million people, about a tenth of China's population, were officially reported as near starvation, farmers could not grow enough to feed the cities, urban unemployment was estimated at 28 million out of a work force of 105 million and attempts to spur economic development with big projects and expensive imported equipment had failed.

Deng's approach was also one of radical reform. Freeing the Chinese peasantry from collectivized agriculture and turning both peasants and townspeople into entrepreneurs, he launched the country on the road to "market socialism." In abandoning the radicalism of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Deng promised political stability, economic growth, social progress and international respect.

"Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference as long as it catches mice," Deng had said even before he became the country's top leader, but the quip became the byword of his pragmatic, "whatever works" approach to socialism.

This week's Sino-Soviet summit brings together Deng and Gorbachev, two leaders who already are widely regarded as the great reformers of communism and who, to the extent that their efforts succeed, could rank as pivotal figures in their countries' histories.

"There is a double significance in the Gorbachev-Deng meeting because of their roles in reforming socialism," Roy A. Medvedev, a prominent Soviet historian, said recently. "As a summit, of course, this meeting heals the breach of 30 years, but as a meeting of men engaged in transforming the socialist system, it looks forward, not backward, and it has immense importance for the future."

The crises faced by Deng and Gorbachev, although different in origin and disparate in character, were not just crises of the moment, according to this view, but were crises of the socialist system.

The only solution was what Gorbachev has called perestroika , or restructuring, and what Deng has termed gai ge , or reform, of the whole social system.

Crisis in Socialism

"As Marxists, we are accustomed to speaking about the crisis of capitalism, for this is well established in Marxism," Alexander Bovin, a leading Soviet political commentator, remarked recently. "Yet, here we had a crisis in socialism--not a momentary, ad hoc crisis, something we could muddle through or simply shrug off, but sustained, systemic, structural crises in the world's two largest socialist countries.

"This has been the challenge that, first, the Chinese Communist Party and then our party have had to face . . . and it has become the dialectic and the dynamic of our current political development."

As Marxists, both Bovin and Medvedev believe in historical forces rather than individuals in determining the course of nations--"it is senseless to talk about personalities," Bovin said--but they each recognize Deng and Gorbachev as gifted leaders at turning points for their countries.

"Both we and the Chinese are very dissatisfied with the socialism that we built, and we are changing it," Bovin said. "Who is leading us, Gorbachev or Deng, is less important than the determination of the people. That said, we also must recognize that others might have attempted this change and failed, or not done it as well or, one can suppose, even done it better."

Deng and Gorbachev, however, are already starting to take theirplaces in the list of communism's thinkers and doers who so greatly altered the course of the 20th Century and who created political, economic and social systems under which more than a third of the world's population lives.

First were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, communism's philosophers and theoreticians. Then came the founders of the two largest Communist states, V. I. Lenin in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung in China. And later there were the builders of what today the world knows as socialism--Josef Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and, in China, Mao and Chou En-lai.

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