In China, Leader Calls for Discipline ; Summary of Comments Reveals Determination to Avoid Soviet Union's Fate

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Xi Jinping, China's incoming president, has promoted himself as an audacious reformer, but a message delivered to Communist Party officials behind closed doors suggests he may demand a return to traditional Leninist discipline.

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, Mr. 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 ruling party there. 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," Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of his comments that has circulated among officials but not been published by state-run 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 Mr. Xi as saying. "In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist."

A gyration between vows of transformation and defenses of party power and dogma have marked Mr. Xi's first three months as China's top leader, a job he is likely to hold for a decade. At the same time, the disjunction between his admonitions to pursue daring change and to ward off threats to traditional orthodoxy embodies a broader quandary confronting the Communist Party as China advances, party insiders and analysts said.

"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 Mr. Xi's comments, on an Internet blog. Three insiders, who were shown copies by officials or editors at state newspapers, confirmed their authenticity, speaking on 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 ever since Deng Xiaoping started China's economic transformation in the late 1970s. But Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Xi's remarks on the lessons of the Soviet Union, as well as warnings in state 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. …