Hong Kong, Feb. 15: When China's new leader, Xi Jinping, visited the country's south to promote himself before the public as an audacious reformer following in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, he had another message to deliver to Communist Party officials behind closed doors.
Despite decades of heady economic growth, Xi told party insiders during a visit to Guangdong province in December, China must still heed the "deeply profound" lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. In a province famed for its frenetic capitalism, he demanded a return to traditional Leninist discipline.
"Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered," Xi said, according to a summary of his comments that has circulated among officials but has not been published by the state-run news media.
"Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone," the summary quoted Xi as saying. "In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist."
In Xi's first three months as China's top leader, he has gyrated between defending the party's absolute hold on power and vowing a fundamental assault on entrenched interests of the party elite that fuel corruption. How to balance those goals presents a quandary to Xi, whose agenda could easily be undermined by rival leaders determined to protect their own bailiwicks and on guard against anything that weakens the party's authority, insiders and analysts say.
"Everyone is talking about reform, but in fact everyone has a fear of reform," said Ma Yong, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. For party leaders, he added: "The question is: Can society be kept under control while you go forward? That's the test."
Gao Yu, a former journalist and independent commentator, was the first to reveal Xi's comments, doing so on a blog. Three insiders, who were shown copies by officials or editors at state newspapers, confirmed their authenticity, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the risk of punishment for discussing party affairs.
The tension between embracing change and defending top-down party power has been an abiding theme in China since Deng set the country on its economic transformation in the late 1970s. But Xi has come to power at a time when such strains are especially acute, and the pressure of public expectations for greater official accountability is growing, amplified by millions of participants in online forums.
Xi has promised determined efforts to deal with China's persistent problems, including official corruption and the chasm between rich and poor. He has also sought a sunnier image, doing away with some of the intimidating security that swaddled his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and demanding that official banquets be replaced by plainer fare called "four dishes and a soup".
Yet Xi's remarks on the lessons of the Soviet Union, as well as warnings in the state news media, betray a fear that China's strains could overwhelm the party, especially if vows of change founder because of political sclerosis and opposition from privileged interest groups like state-owned conglomerates. Already this year, public outcries over censorship at a popular newspaper and choking pollution in Beijing have given the new party leadership a taste of those pressures.
Some progressive voices are urging China's leaders to pay more than lip service to respecting rights and limits on party power promised by the Constitution. Meanwhile, some old-school Leftists hail Xi as a muscular nationalist who will go further than his predecessors in asserting China's territorial claims.
The choices facing China's new leadership include how much to relax the state's continuing grip on the commanding heights of the economy and how far to take promises to fight corruption ' a step that could alienate powerful officials and their families.
"How can the ruling party ensure its standing during a period of flux?" asked Ding Dong, a current affairs commentator in Beijing. "That's truly a real challenge, and it's creating a sense of tension and latent crisis inside the party."