CHINA is the only major communist country left in the world. And it is a big country. That point will be emphasized next week when China's Prime Minister Li Peng comes to New York for a United Nations summit meeting. It is China, not Germany or Japan, that occupies one of the five permanent Security Council seats.
The world's image of China, particularly in the United States, has been frozen on one shocking event - the Tiananmen killings of June 4, 1989. Li Peng remains the visible symbol of that day and of the repression that followed.
But while Tiananmen can never be erased, China, as a country, must be looked at as a whole. It's a state ruled by an elderly elite that looks back to the Marxism-Leninism of their youth as a shining alternative to the feudalism and warlord culture they struggled against.
That vision is increasingly divorced from economic reality. But so far the leadership has made enough practical compromises to keep the country moving forward. In economic terms, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin may well envy his giant eastern neighbor. China's economy grew by 7 percent last year, according to government spokesman Yuan Mu. Buoyed by foreign investment of nearly $10 billion and by an export surplus of $8 billion, its foreign exchange reserves last year reached $40 billion.
With the US, China had a trade surplus of $13 billion last year. Among the US's trading partners, this figure is second only to that of Japan. Look at the label on a piece of clothing , or an electric gadget, and it may well say "Made in China."
These are the fruits of economic reform policies begun in the late 1970s, which raised farmers' incomes, decentralized many aspects of economic planning, sent large numbers of students overseas, and created a market economy that coexists with the state sector. Severe problems beset the economy, almost all of them rising from the increasingly unprofitable state sector and the unwillingness of central planners to let the market operate freely.
But whereas agriculture in the former Soviet Union is a shambles, grain production in China hit 435 million metric tons last year. Shops and markets in Beijing and Shanghai are full of food and consumer goods.
China's 1.13 billion people still live at a pretty basic level, compared to neighboring Japan or Taiwan. But there is countrywide health care. Infant mortality is 31 per 1000, compared to 97 in India or 61 in Brazil. Population control is strictly enforced, although horrendous stories are told of forced abortions in the fifth month of pregnancy, or even later.
Here is a state that can claim with some justification to be fulfilling its basic contract with its people, to provide them with adequate food, housing, and clothing, education and health care, and to be doing so without enormous amounts of foreign aid.
In addition, China is a nuclear power, which has only recently signified its intention to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Except for the Soviet successor state of Kazakhstan, it is the only Asian country to possess explicitly a nuclear arsenal. (India and Pakistan are widely believed to be nuclear-capable.)
So when Li Peng sits down with his Security Council colleagues - President George Bush, Mr. Yeltsin, French President Francois Mitterand, and British Prime Minister John Major - he represents a power with substantial weight in world affairs.
As the Gulf war showed, China will go along with the US and other Security Council members on actions to oppose a clear, present threat to world peace and stability. Despite its communism it is, in this sense, a status quo power.
China has not yet come anywhere near closing the gap that separates it from rich industrial nations. To have any chance of doing so would require stability at home and a peaceful environment outside. To this extent, China's interests coincide with those of the US and other stability-conscious powers.
Is China immune from political change? Hardly. The rigidly communist superstructure of the Chinese state rests on increasingly centrifugal economic underpinnings. As the economy grows, and goes its way, the contradictions between politics and the economy will become unmanageable. That will likely be the time for Li Peng's departure.