MOSCOW — No one has watched the crisis in China with greater concern than Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, for in it he can see some of his compatriots' worst fears for what could go wrong here with his ambitious program of political, economic and social reforms.
Already there are warnings from the radicals to his left that ultra-conservatives in the Soviet Communist Party hierarchy, the military and the police would like a crackdown on the new political movements here and might even stage a provocation to justify harsh action.
Leaders 'Getting Scared'
"I am afraid that something like what is happening in China could happen in the Soviet Union," Andrei D. Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and longtime human rights activist, said over the weekend while on a visit to the Netherlands. "The political activity of the masses has increased greatly in the Soviet Union, and the political leadership is getting scared.
"Mikhail Gorbachev must gather enough common sense and realism, not to create new causes for conflict, but to solve the outstanding problems instead. That is the only way to avoid a disaster. Our country, too, is on the brink of catastrophe."
But from the right, too, there were also strong words during the recent session of the new Congress of People's Deputies about the growing dangers of "disorder," "chaos" and "anarchy" in Soviet society as a result of the increased political freedom and the relaxation of the strict social discipline of the past.
"The purpose of the reform is not to tear down the socialism we have been building for 70 years, but to strengthen it," a local party official from central Russia said. "We have seen in other countries how unscrupulous political maneuverers, some of them the undisguised opponents of socialism, have taken advantage of the party's pursuit of reforms and pushed the nation into crisis. That must not happen here. The party must remain in control."
Whether he was speaking of China in 1989--or Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Hungary in 1956--was unclear, but he drew loud applause from the conservative wing of the Congress.
For Gorbachev, there have been three other concerns, diverse but all serious, as the crisis in China has grown:
-- In his pursuit of detente with the West, Gorbachev has used perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya, as his own domestic reforms are known, to help break down the Soviet Union's "enemy image" and thus to win a hearing for his bold foreign policy innovations.
No Longer a Threat
Gorbachev's approach has been to show the West that communism is changing internally, no longer threatens countries with other political systems and that Moscow's domestic preoccupations make it a better neighbor and more reliable partner in international relations.
The brutality of the Chinese authorities' crackdown, shown to the rest of the world on television, have already weakened Soviet claims that its reformation will bring "socialism with a human face," according to some Soviet political observers.
-- China's political turmoil through the decade-long Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, added considerably to international tensions, particularly in Asia, and made the resolution of conflicts more difficult, if not impossible.
The country's relative stability, until now, under senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, had brought a gradual but quite significant improvement in relations among the major powers of the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, India, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Could Cause Damage
Referring to this, Gorbachev told a press conference in Bonn last week: "All of us want the profound reforms and changes in that great country not to fail. That could cause major damage to the process of improving relations in the world."
-- The Soviet Union has an additional stake in the Chinese crisis: the recent improvement in Sino-Soviet relations ending three decades of hostility between the two Communist giants and the desire to develop those new political and economic ties.
For this reason, while expressing his "regret over some aspects of what has happened" and his general concern over developments in China, Gorbachev remained cautious and circumspect, neither criticizing the Chinese authorities nor accepting their assertion that "counterrevolutionaries" were to blame for the trouble.
The Soviet press, after a few frankly worded reports on the first army actions to clear Tian An Men Square in Beijing, has given only the most succinct accounts of developments, usually emphasizing "efforts to stabilize the situation" and often quoting the official Chinese news media. The Soviet leadership, however, has watched much of the action in the Chinese capital on a Cable News Network monitor recently installed in the Kremlin.