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27 February 1997 Edition

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A different Chinese revolution

     In 1994 Brian Campbell spent two months in China. He evaluates the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, who died last week.

Visitors to the town of Panzhihua in Sichuan, the province where Deng Xiaoping was born, soon become aware that China is grinding its way through a remarkable industrial revolution.

A grey haze hangs over the town. New buildings are springing up every twenty yards. To the constant sound of beeping horns, lorries, buses, jeeps and bicycles trundle and slide through the mud of a new road system under construction. Dozens of factories line the banks of a brown river. Outside their gates what seems like hundreds of stallholders wait patiently for workers to stream out. Ironically, they are selling cigarettes. It appears that every person is as enthusiastic a smoke-belcher as every factory in this crazy industrial town. After a few minutes I notice that my watch is covered in a film of dust. Soon the same is true of my skin and my hair has turned solid. It is difficult to know how people could live and breathe in this atmosphere. But health is secondary to the relentless pursuit of money.

The unremitting pollution of Panzhihua represents one side effect of China's remarkable drive to industrialise. This nominally Communist country is going through a capitalist transformation faster and more profound than anything the world has ever seen.

Deng Xiaoping was responsible for putting China on this capitalist fast track. With his famous saying - ``it doesn't matter whether your cat is black or white as long as it catches mice'' - he led the Chinese Communist Party away from socialist central planning with promises of riches.

The reforms began in the area north of Hong Kong and have spread in little over ten years until today the whole country is gripped by what one economist aptly calls Market Leninism - a virtually unrestricted free market in a political system tightly controlled by the Communist Party Central Committee.

In many ways the situation in China resembles what happened in England during its industrial revolution over two hundred years ago. Peasants flood into the cities (you see them emerging full of hope from the trains in Beijing's central railway station) and small artisans are being swept away by the relentless rise of factory production. Street markets are everywhere. Even the People's Liberation Army has been allowed to indulge in the market frenzy. In 1994 I resisted the temptation to take a slight detour on the road from Beijing to the Great Wall to visit a PLA firing range where tourists could pay to use the weapon of their choice - American tourists in particular were fond of dropping by to fire off a couple of anti-tank missiles or have a blast with a heavy machine gun.

The old and the new continue to exist side by side in large towns and cities. Turn a corner from a street full of market traders which seems to have changed little in a hundred years and you are in the middle of a modern business district with avenues of gleaming skyscrapers. Within a few years a number of Chinese cities will rival Hong Kong, at least in architecture if not in economic importance. Even in remote areas, old districts which have survived for hundreds of years are being demolished to make way for the Chinese version of ugly modernism - square, flat-roofed buildings covered in white tiles. This is a country too busy for listed buildings.

Foreign capital is hungrily investing in this booming market. The massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 - ordered by Deng - was conveniently ignored in the rush to invest. Chinese support for the murderous Khmer Rouge was also ignored (which might have something to do with Western support for Pol Pot's army). No one was prepared to sacrifice a market as vast as China's. Its huge population - at 1.2 billion it has a quarter of the world's population - means that it is on track to become the most powerful economy in the world.

But with a capitalist economy comes capitalist inequality. A millionaire class has quickly sprouted - including the young relatives of party apparatchiks - while workers' wages and conditions are often abysmal. Peasants lured from the drudgery of the countryside are paid some of the lowest wages in the world. Industrial accidents are common and many hundreds of workers have perished in factory fires in recent years.

So far, economic change has not prompted political change but the pressures will surely build. The business class will look to transform economic power into political power. And who will look after the interests of the workers and the peasants? At present the Communist Party is prepared to use their cheap labour on the road to becoming a superpower while still using the rhetoric of communism.

With Deng gone, the leadership has lost the last of the Long March leaders. It is a break with a truly revolutionary past. The new leader, Jiang Zemin, has pledged to continue the pace of economic expansion. He could hardly do otherwise. The process appears unstoppable.

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