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China After Deng

Where will China go after Deng Xiaoping? About where Deng wanted it to go - forward into the world's economic mainstream. China's paramount leader was not active in policymaking during the final few years of his life, but the course he set still steers his nation.

At the heart of Deng's plan was economic opening, without which, he realized, China would remain a huge, self-absorbed backwater. He allowed the Chinese commercial genius to blossom. This threatened the old Communist system of centralized economic control, but that system, Deng seemed to recognize, was uniquely unsuited to China.

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Yet he still held to the dogma of Communist Party dominance. Deng was not willing to let the Chinese people's political aspirations blossom along with the economy - as his crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989 brutally attested.

This "model" - open economy, closed political system - will continue to present China's fellow actors on the world stage with dilemmas. How do you deal with a country of nearly incalculable economic vitality that, at the same time, rejects the most basic values of human rights and political freedom? Criticism of the latter will always endanger the profits represented by the former.

For the United States, the answer has been - and will probably remain - a balancing of economic interest and political principle. Continue to strengthen economic ties, but don't hesitate to criticize Beijing when it treads on basic rights. And use both arenas as opportunities to broaden Chinese thinking and leverage Chinese actions.

The dark side of Deng's legacy will doubtless persist. Authoritarianism - rooted in a passion for social order - won't disappear with the paramount leader's passing. His successors are tutored in his methods, though they have nothing comparable to his unchallenged authority. Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin appears to have a firm grasp on the No. 1 spot. But he sits atop a hive of competing political aspirants, in various wings of the party and in the military. A party congress set for later this year will pose a major test of Mr. Jiang's staying power. The greater test, for the country as a whole, is to arrive at a political structure that provides for an orderly succession to power, versus the intra-party intrigue that characterizes Leninist regimes.

Other events not far down the road will force China's leaders to engage with the world as never before: the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the question of China's entry into the World Trade Organization and other economic entities, growing international efforts to curb the arms trade, and, at some point, a new modus vivendi with Taiwan.

This engagement could move China toward unforeseen changes in its own governance, toward a system that has greater flexibility and meets less condemnation from an increasingly democratic outside world. Even though the remarkably perceptive Deng seemed to be blind to this point, a new generation of Chinese may yet come to realize that representative government, an unfettered flow of ideas, and individual freedom are ultimately in China's own interest.

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