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ECONOMIC CHANGE IN CHINA WILL BRING POLITICAL CHANGE

China's infamous premier, Li Peng, tried to satisfy two conflicting groups - the economic reformers and the Marxist political hard-liners - in his annual speech to the National People's Congress this past week. But it's unlikely to work.

While vowing to promote faster and deeper economic reform, Li promised that Western political trends, including dissent, would be stopped the moment they appeared.Yet trying to have it both ways - a market economy and a Marxist state - seems doomed to failure. Political change inevitably will accompany economic change. Just ask unemployed communist leaders in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Chinese scholars believe that the pro-democracy movement, ignited by a huge university student population, was the natural result of economic reforms begun 13 years ago.

Li, 63, is widely blamed at home and abroad for his part in ordering attacks against pro-democracy demonstrators around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

The crushing of the movement with tanks and bullets sent a chill across China and brought almost universal international condemnation.

Now, after only three years of repression, the Chinese government is attempting to lighten up - at least economically.

The question by all observers is how much progress can be made in economic reform without threatening the control of the political regime.

Most China watchers think opening up China to progressive economics will almost certainly open it up to political reformation as well. The two can hardly be separated.

Even after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders continued to promote private enterprises which have operated at a profit at the same time government-controlled enterprises have suffered a deficit.

China has continued to receive international competitive pressure, forcing officials to orchestrate a new economic reform movement.

Managers of state enterprises have been told to "liberate their thinking" and borrow the useful elements of capitalism, and to to do whatever is necessary to attract more foreign investment.

Although the United States wants to encourage China to embrace capitalism and to make humanizing changes, democracy is the last thing current hard-liner Chinese leaders seem to want.

Yet the opening up of economic life is likely to reopen the possibilities of violence from the huge population of disaffected citizens who detest their government.

Even those Chinese political dissidents who have escaped to the West believe that a democratic future in China lies with a younger generation of leaders more likely to embrace the democratic revolution so successful in other parts of the world.