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THE hard core of China's leaders always thought they could push ahead with economic reforms while holding to rigid, centralized political control. Last year's democracy movement shook their faith in that formula. When it became clear that new political thinking was surging alongside the officially sanctioned economic innovation, the leadership jammed on the brakes in both spheres. But the momentum of market-oriented economic reform, though blunted by a resurgence of political figures wedded to centralization, hasn't been lost altogether. This week brought reports of China's plans to start a futures market in grains, said to be the first such mechanism in the socialist world. Orthodox Marxists spurn futures trading as a species of capitalist speculation. But the more pragmatic of China's economists recognize this market is needed to avoid wild swings in prices and chasms between supply and demand.

It's a relatively small step, since most of China's wheat will still be sold to the state at set prices. But it's a reminder that economic reform is not dead.

Similarly, the thousand or so students at Beijing University who marked the anniversary of last year's massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators is a reminder that political reform still lives. The machinery of repression was rolled out in force Monday evening to prevent just such sparks of protest, but the troops and police - some of whom roughed up foreign journalists trying to cover the demonstrations - only highlighted the bravery of students and the paranoia of the ruling clique.

The students in Beijing, along with their compatriots abroad, represent China's future. An opportunity to express new political thinking, to engage in dialogue in order to have a part in their country's evolution, was their demand last spring. Had that freer marketplace of ideas been granted, China's long-term grasp on progress and stability might have been strengthened - perhaps a little like a futures market, turbulent though its floor action may be, helps stabilize commodity trading.

Beijing's aging hardliners are fearful of losing their revolution. They should be concerned about jeopardizing their country's future.

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