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A giant walks

If it's true that when a giant walks a step, the forest - and everything underfoot - reverberates, then China-watchers will have their ears close to the ground during the next several years.

The reason? China is about to embark on what could be the most important modernization of its economy since 1978. Back then, the nation launched a program to decentralize its agricultural system. The upshot has been a near disappearance of the commune system and the liberation of over half of the nation's farm production from state control. Now, China's leaders plan to reduce state control over the industrial sector.

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The new decentralization plans are overdue. Properly implemented, they should go far in regenerating an often inefficient economy. The economy, of course, will still be state-led. But among steps expected are a cutback in state subsidies for key industries and the granting of greater freedom to workers in switching jobs, as well as an upgrading of a pricing structure that goes back to the 1950s. The entire program would be phased in over time - say, five years or so.

Party leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly told a group of Western businessmen earlier this week that ''we'll walk a step and watch a step'' in putting a decentralization plan into effect. Given the sheer weight of China's importance in Asia - with a population base of well over 1 billion people - it can be safely assumed that when China walks even a step, the echoes will rumble far and wide.

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