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Keeping a watchful eye on China // Don't ignore possibility of a national breakup

Conventional wisdom says China will not fragment; that it will not split into independent multiple governing groups, whether based on province-city, north-south, ethnic, military or other divisions; and that the party and military would not tolerate separatism. This thinking keeps U.S. and world policymakers from considering whether fragmentation would be good for China, Asia and the world.

Still, there are factors that point toward fragmentation. Factionalism within the Communist Party is one. This may surface now that Deng Xiaoping is dead. Wang Shaoguang and Liu Angang, Chinese social scientists, in 1993 writing in the New China News Agency to encourage recentralization, nevertheless stated: "If a strongman dies . . . in a few years . . . the country will move from economic collapse to political breakup, ending with disintegration." The use of corruption charges to "retire" Chen Xitong, the former mayor of Beijing, from the Politburo in 1995 barely masked a problem of party factionalism.

A political breakup could be fueled by a fight between Jiang Zemin, the general secretary of the party, head of state and chairman of the central military commission, allied with Zhu Rongji, a vice premier, and Prime Minister Li Peng, or Qiao Shi, the political head of the secret service and chairman of the National People's Congress.

Factionalism in the military is another factor. The seven military regions into which China is divided, each with its own command, or factions built on military educational institutions, field or group affiliations, suggest frameworks in which military leaders could emerge.

Ethnic minorities are a definite factor even though they constitute only 2 percent to 7 percent of China. Witness the Muslims in the Xinjiang region: 200 Turkic Muslims have been arrested since mid-July. A Uighur exile government in Kazakhstan calls for independence of Xinjiang's 10-million Muslim Uighur. The Dalai Lama and others speak for Buddhist Tibetan autonomy. In Inner Mongolia, 12 people were arrested in late 1995 for demanding more autonomy. Liu Minzu, the Communist Party leader of Inner Mongolia said, "Underground religious activities and terrorism by splittists is the most severe threat."

Regional income disparities also could lead to fragmentation. Low per capita income of Sichuan (2,515 yuan) and Gansu (1,925 yuan) contrast sharply with high figures for urban areas such as Shanghai (15,204), Beijing (10,265) and Tianjin (8,164). Low-income inland provinces could well react against the center, demanding more money and preferential tax treatment like that granted to coastal economic zones.

Thriving coastal regions, including Hainan, Fujian and Hong Kong (after the July reversion to China), as well as Shanghai, reluctantly pass monies to Beijing, whether in the form of budget sharing, forced loans or the value-added tax. Their disproportionate burden coupled with their increasing global interdependence and cosmopolitanism could nourish fragmentation.

Powerful industries disregard Beijing and are another force for fragmentation. Despite Beijing's agreements to the contrary, a state-owned enterprise sold ring magnets (for making nuclear reactors) to Pakistan. Norinco, the large military business conglomerate, sold small arms to the United States. Intellectual piracy continues rampant.

Modern communications undermine Beijing's control and encourage an alternative form of government. International television, radio and e-mail, which Beijing finds difficult to control, inform the Chinese of governments with more representation, freedoms and the good material life.

Fragmentation is a possibility. It's frightening that world leaders seem little ready to deal with it.

Victor H. Frank Jr. was U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 1987 to 1993.

Special to the Los Angeles Times