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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Mushrooming Fears for the Future of Communism : REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: EAST ASIA


BEIJING — When exiled Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi showed up in Taiwan last week on his first visit to that anti-Communist stronghold, he wasted no time in verbally skewering the aging ideologues of Beijing.

Noting that the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag would soon come down for the last time, Fang told a Taipei news conference: "Such great changes taking place during these two years place immense psychological pressure on the Chinese Communist leadership. . . . The changes in the Soviet Union prove that Communist ideology has failed. China has used this Communist pattern for the foundation of the country, so its leaders feel a sense of panic."

Fang noted that Beijing is waging a relentless campaign against the "peaceful evolution" that it sees as a plot by Chinese liberals and Western governments to gradually undermine communism. While not endorsing the idea of this being a plot, he agreed that such a process is under way--and predicted that it will succeed.

There can be no doubt that China's leaders are indeed worried that their system may collapse. In neighboring North Korea, the most hard-line Communist state left in the world, the situation may be even more serious.

Beijing's hard-liners are trying to make the best of a bad situation by using the economic dislocations and political chaos in the former Soviet Union to justify their own brutal 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

With China now experiencing a period of enforced political calm and growing prosperity, this strategy seems to be meeting with at least some temporary success. Living standards are still not high, but stores are full of goods and markets have plenty of meat and vegetables. The government is not very popular among citizens of Beijing, but the intense resentment that was pervasive here two years ago seems to have eased.

The Chinese media, meanwhile, are full of reports on the Russians' hardships.

"Long queues can be seen at bakers in Moscow, with many old people, walking-stick in hand, waiting for their turn in heavy snow," the official New China News Agency reported in a typical recent dispatch. "When asked if she felt cold, an old lady in a long queue answered: 'I am afraid of nothing but hunger.' "

A commentary last Wednesday by the official New China News Agency carried blunt criticism of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, declaring that his " 'new thinking,' ' glasnost ' and 'political pluralism' have brought political chaos, ethnic strife and economic crisis."

For China, the collapse of the Soviet Union presents a wide variety of challenges, not all of them ideological. There also are some new opportunities.

The rise of independent Central Asian republics with heavy Muslim majorities complicates Beijing's efforts to maintain stability in its own far western region of Xinjiang, where Muslim groups make up about half the population.

Anti-Chinese feeling among Xinjiang's minorities periodically erupts into rioting, including an incident last year in which the government admitted that at least 22 people died.

The breakup of the Soviet Union may also affect efforts to reach agreement on demarcation of China's long-disputed northern and western borders, as negotiations will no longer be conducted with a single partner but with several neighboring states.

Beijing and Moscow have radically improved their once-frosty relations in the last few years. This process seems to be continuing in most aspects of the relationship, including cross-border trade and reduction of military tensions.

With a smaller, weaker Russia replacing the Soviet Union as China's neighbor to the north, the military threat has been further reduced.

Beijing has expressed concern, however, about control of nuclear weapons with no Soviet Union.

The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a superpower carries dramatic long-term implications for China's role in the world. China had about four times the population of the Soviet Union. It has more than seven times the population of Russia.

Beijing probably need no longer fear getting pushed around by the Russians. The Americans, however, are another matter. Will Beijing and Washington re-establish genuinely friendly ties? Or will they slip into a bitter standoff in the years ahead?

The initial rapprochement between Washington and Beijing during the 1970s was largely based on a shared fear of Soviet power.

During the 1980s, the relationship was pushed forward by overly romantic American perceptions of China. Beijing's bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tian An Men Square protests, plus the Soviet Union's subsequent collapse, have undercut these foundations of friendly Sino-U.S. ties.

Many in Congress now see little geopolitical risk in demanding that Beijing improve its human rights record as a condition of normal trade relations. But the current Chinese leadership depends on political repression to maintain its grip on power and thus faces practical limits on how much it can concede.

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