The Chinese government seems to have entered a period of indecisiveness that is hurting its ability to confront such pressing issues as high unemployment, urban unrest and foreign policy challenges, Chinese and Western analysts say.
The sense of drift, they say, results from an absence of bold and inspirational leadership of the sort provided in the past by Mao Zedong, who led the Communist revolution and founded modern China in 1949, and by Deng Xiaoping, who 30 years later launched free-market reforms that have made the country an economic powerhouse.
"Anyone who proposes something creative," remarked a frustrated young official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "will not get promoted."
"We are seeing the bureaucratization of China's leadership," said a senior Western diplomat. "You don't have people like Mao Zedong; you don't have people like Deng Xiaoping, but people who've spent 25 years crawling up the ladder, punching tickets. . . . There is no vision for the future."
The slowdown in decision-making, these analysts note, comes as China faces a number of important domestic and international issues, with entry into the World Trade Organization at the top of the list. Western diplomats say China's failure to gain membership in the WTO would damage its shaky ties with the United States and set back its economic reforms.
Other major issues that the leadership appears either unwilling or unable to tackle involve policy toward Taiwan and the reform of state-owned enterprises. But even on issues on which the leadership appears firm, such as a crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, China's leaders are having trouble getting results. Falun Gong practitioners have carried out unprecedented protests in Beijing this week, resulting in scores of arrests.
Premier Zhu Rongji, who ranks third in the Communist Party hierarchy, has offered his resignation twice in the past six months, Western and Chinese sources say, because of his failure to conclude a deal for China's entry into the WTO in April and his inability to bolster China's flagging economy.
At the same time, Zhu's nemesis, Li Peng--who heads China's legislature and is second in the party hierarchy--has been weakened by incessant rumors of corruption involving his family and his association with the Three Gorges Dam project, a $25 billion enterprise wracked by controversy and construction delays.
President Jiang Zemin, the party leader, has taken advantage of the bickering between his two underlings by attempting to elevate himself to the stature of Mao or Deng. During the festivities to mark the 50th anniversary of Communist rule on Oct. 1, Jiang was the only living leader with a parade float devoted to him. He also has promoted two allies, Vice President Hu Jintao and party insider Zeng Qinghong, to important military and party posts.
But Jiang is saddled with the reputation of a man who seems to prefer froth to substance. During recent meetings with three Western visitors, for example, Jiang discoursed at length on the history of Germany's Westphalia region, the Gettysburg Address and different ways to say the word "toilet" around the world, Western sources said.
"He's known as 'the Actor,' " said Wang Ruoshui, the former vice editor in chief of the People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper. "He has failed to impose his prestige."
One movement Jiang has spearheaded is called the "Three Stresses" campaign, which is designed to streamline the work of party officials and combat corruption. "When he first started this movement, many of us said, 'This must be very important; we need this,' " said the president of a well-connected polling firm in Beijing. "But after we went to the meetings, we realized it was nothing. When Mao launched campaigns, everyone truly thought, 'There is something wrong with me,' because we looked at Mao as a god. Jiang? We just take him as another person."
The feeling of drift is in sharp contrast to the mood that permeated Beijing in 1998, when President Clinton visited. There was a sense then that China was ready to adopt creative solutions to its troubled relationship with Tibet and the Dalai Lama, that it was considering political reforms, that it was ready to re-energize reform in the state-owned sector. Now, anti-Dalai Lama propaganda is as virulent as ever, scores of dissidents have been jailed in recent months for advocating political change, and the pace of economic reform is slowing down.
History says this confused period will not necessarily last. Since the country embraced reform in 1978, China has moved spasmodically but clearly toward a more open, freer society. Despite the government's assertions that the state-owned sector will continue as the bedrock of the economy, for example, more than half of China's economy is powered by the non-state sector. Li Fan, an independent political analyst here, even predicts a political loosening after China's legislature meets next March.
Nonetheless, the drift is having a marked affect on the economy and China's international prestige. Foreign investment in China is expected to fall from about $40 billion last year to about $27 billion this year, slumping for the first time since Western firms fled China following the government's 1989 crackdown on student-led democracy demonstrations.
One of the clearest examples of drift, Chinese and Western experts say, is Beijing's policy toward Taiwan, which remains the most explosive issue dividing the United States and China. For years, China has maintained it should reunite with Taiwan based on the "one country, two systems" model that Deng proposed during talks in the 1980s on the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. But it has become increasingly clear that Taiwan, with a home-grown democracy and unique culture, wants no part of a formula contrived for a British colony.
Instead of becoming part of China, Taiwan appears to be moving further away. In May, President Lee Teng-hui shocked Beijing when he demanded that China treat Taiwan as an equal in negotiations about Taiwan's future and establish "special state-to-state" relations with the Taipei government. Beijing responded by saber-rattling and demanding that Lee reverse his stance. So far, Lee has not.
"The Taiwan issue is the clearest indication that our system needs a jolt," said a senior Chinese political scientist. "Debate is stifled. Yes, there are risks, but if we continue this way, will we ever unite? The problem is that the leadership's view of its position is so brittle that change is impossible now."
China's leadership also faces an increasingly restive domestic situation. Last year, as many as 6 million people lost their jobs in China's cities, bringing to 16 million the number of unemployed in urban areas, according to Wang Shan, a political analyst in Beijing. Despite the government's efforts, many of them receive no unemployment compensation.
This army of the unemployed often takes to the streets in protest. While China's dispossessed have confined such protests to demands for money, the intensifying urban discontent has shaken the party's commitment to reform the lumbering state-owned sector. A report that followed a meeting of the party's policy-making Central Committee in September highlighted these fears.
Two years ago, the government committed to reforming state-owned sectors of the economy in three years, but the September report pushed that deadline back a decade, to 2010. Wu Bangguo, a senior party official who is considered relatively conservative, drew up the report, instead of Zhu, who had previously overseen state-sector reform.
The report also stopped talk of removing the day-to-day operations of state-run firms from direct party influence. From now on, the report said, the chief executive officer and the party secretary will be the same person--another sign of the party's concern about losing control of the reform effort.
CAPTION: Jiang Zemin, whose tour of Europe in the past week has drawn protesters, gestures during a visit to Paris.