China's new constitution provides the legal framework for the country's priority task: to achieve economic modernization by the end of this century.
''Socialist modernization of China's economy must be the focal point for all other work, which should serve it,'' said Politburo member Peng Zhen in a speech introducing the constitution.
Unless there was ''a massive invasion by the enemy,'' said Mr. Peng, ''we must from now on implement this strategic policy unswervingly.''
The constitution, adopted by the National People's Congress Dec. 4, revives the posts of president and vice-president of the republic which were abolished during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It creates a central military commission, the function of which is ''to direct the armed forces of the country.''
Deng Xiaoping, who is already chairman of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, will almost certainly be named chairman of the government's Central Military Commission. All other officers of state named in the new constitution - president, vice-president, premier, vice-premier, and so forth - can hold their positions for a maximum of two five-year terms. But the chairman of the Military Commission's term of office is not limited in this way.
The constitution also provides for the eventual return of Taiwan by empowering the state to ''establish special administrative regions when necessary.'' These special regions will come under special laws to be passed by the National People's Congress ''in the light of specific conditions'' thus providing for flexibility in the treatment of Taiwan. Hong Kong, although not mentioned in the constitution, will also qualify for treatment as a special region.
Reflecting the importance of the role assigned to intellectuals in the economic modernization program, the preamble of the constitution says, ''in building socialism it is imperative to rely on the workers, peasants, and intellectuals, and unite with all the forces that can be united.''
This is the first time intellectuals have been specifically included with workers and peasants as a basic force for building up the country. Mr. Peng, in his comments on the constitution, defined intellectuals as belonging to the worker class. They are no longer to be the objects of hostility and of mistrust as they were during the Cultural Revolution and even before.
The constitution is more explicit than China's previous three constitutions in defining the rights and duties of citizens. Freedom of speech, press, and of religious belief, are guaranteed, as is the privacy of correspondence. But these freedoms are not absolute and do not allow citizens to advocate changing the system of government or to oppose the Communist Party.
The constitution does not turn China into a liberal democracy and is not intended to do so. It was passed by 3,037 votes with no opposing votes cast and with only three abstentions. But it is far from being a meaningless piece of paper as those used to Western constitutional systems may assume. Most Chinese citizens, having undergone the tumult of the Cultural Revolution years, are hungry for stability and hungry for law.
China's pragmatic leadership under Deng's disciples Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the party, and Premier Zhao Ziyang know that their goal of economic modernization can be achieved only by mobilizing the enthusiasm of China's working people. To this end, the constitution is designed to provide a framework of predictability.
cl11 The Communist Party and its leadership remains firmly in control as it has throughout the 33 years since the establishment of the People's Republic. But this control is not to be exercised arbitrarily or capriciously, whether by individuals or by groups, as it was during the Cultural Revolution by the followers of the ''gang of four'' headed by Mao Tse-tung's wife Jiang Qing.
In the end, the authority of the new constitution will depend entirely on how faithfully its spirit and provisions are executed even within the limits already noted.
Will the principle of rotation in office indeed be established? Will the people's congresses, at various levels, and the National People's Congress at the top, become organs of meaningful discussion about matters of fundamental importance? Will citizens manage to appeal successfully against unjust acts of individuals or organizations however highly placed?
Until these tests are passed, the constitution is a framework, expressive of a hope that law shall prevail.