BEIJING — After calling upon the troops of the People's Liberation Army to slaughter unarmed civilians, China's Communist Party leadership has set itself on a new course in which it will face a daunting, perhaps overwhelming, series of problems caused by its own fateful decision.
The first and foremost obstacle will be to win over the support of a divided Chinese Communist Party and of China's own population. "They're going to be dealing with a sullen, resentful country on a permanent go-slow," observed one Western diplomat here.
No one here knows for sure whether the Chinese leaders identified with the actions of the past few weeks--particularly Premier Li Peng and President Yang Shangkun--will be able to hold on to the power they now seem to be wielding. As long as many people in China think these men will eventually be deposed and disgraced, few will want to cooperate too closely with them.
The result, experts say, will be a China which is much less stable and much less capable than it has appeared for the past decade.
"The likelihood of a strong, stable, forward-looking China has diminished," said Kenneth Lieberthal, head of the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies, in an interview here. "This place faces enormous problems, and the ability to manage those problems has been diminished. What you're seeing now is political decay, a deterioration of the political system."
The triumph of the new hard-line leadership will have a dramatic impact on China's dealings with the rest of the world, too. "This regime has lost all its credibility," said one Western European diplomat Sunday.
It will be much harder for China to obtain from the West the advanced technology, the foreign investment and the loans it needs for its economic development. And, realizing how difficult it will be, the Chinese leadership may not try so hard to obtain it.
China could try to turn to other Communist countries for whatever economic help they can provide. Or, alternatively, the Chinese leadership could try to turn inward again, reviving the old policies of "self-sufficiency" with which Mao Tse-tung once sought to have China go it alone.
How did it happen? What prompted China's political leadership to take what seems, on the surface, to be such a drastic step?
Old Men Clinging to Power
One reason clearly is the advancing age of China's leaders and their insistence on clinging to power.
One joke making the rounds here is that China's current political crisis can be explained as "a bunch of 80-year-olds telling a bunch of 70-year-olds which 60-year-olds should retire."
Despite all the surface changes of the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party is still dominated by Deng and his contemporaries from the Long March generation--old party stalwarts such as Chen Yun and Peng Zhen who, while officially retired from their posts in the government and Politburo, continue to wield tremendous influence over major party decisions.
"The leadership seems completely out of touch with what is going on in (Chinese) society," Lieberthal observed.
In the United States or some other Western country, a troublesome 84-year-old who sought to cling to power would be nudged aside. A favored son or daughter might well be dispatched to tell father it is time to give up.
Not Easy to Let Go
But in China, getting an octogenarian to let go is not so easy.
The problem is not merely one of Confucian filial piety, but of China's still-feudal social and economic system. In China, sons, daughters and other relatives enjoy enormous privileges and power based on their parents' position--and when the father falls from power, so does the rest of his family. Sons and daughters have a vested stake in preserving their parents' position.
Deng and his old allies grew up together in the secret underworld of the Chinese Communist Party. They fought wars together, killed enemies together, built a country together, and suffered together during the Cultural Revolution.
"What we're seeing is the workings of a mystical secret society," said one Western diplomat here last week after Deng's old allies re-emerged in positions of influence once again.
In times of crisis, the old party stalwarts come together once again, their personal bonds tighter than those of whoever serves on the Politburo of the moment.
Leaders Facing Two Crises
For China's Old Guard, this spring has been a time not just of one crisis but of two.
The first crisis is one of political succession. By all appearances, Deng, 84, is in frail health. Within the Communist Party, Premier Li and Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang have for most of the past year been maneuvering for influence, thinking ahead to the post-Deng era.
So, too, within the People's Liberation Army, which Deng heads as chairman of the party's Military Commission, rival factions have been feuding with one another, military analysts say.