Much of the world may be forgiven if it fails to notice that China celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Communist takeover on Oct. 1.
The sad truth is that Mao Zedong's disastrous rule and his successors' halting moves to a market economy have left China's impact on the world as more potential than portentous, more promise than promising. In short, the red dragon is stuck in a Communist cave.
A country with vast natural resources and one-fifth of humanity remains poorer, per capita, than Papua New Guinea. Its total economy is smaller than Italy's. Its military is second-rate.
China has so few friends that it must display and export pre-Communist Chinese heritage (including pandas) in hopes that impressive cultural eyewash will counteract the world's disdain for its political suppression.
Instead of looking backward at its half-century of longevity with anniversary theatrics in Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party should use this occasion to tell its people how China will do better in the next 50 years.
For starters, the party might acknowledge that making nuclear bombs, wielding a United Nations veto, and threatening Taiwan and Tibet do not make a great power.
Prosperity and freedom will be the hallmarks of the 21st century, and China has only one of those half right with its partial market opening.
To be on the side of the future, the party can vow to further reduce the state's role in the economy and the party's meddling in people's lives, dropping any pretense of creating socialism.
The party can say it no longer derives its legitimacy by claiming it rescued the nation from Mao's mistakes or by producing modest (and highly uneven) economic growth.
Like leaders in Taiwan and South Korea in the past decade, China's single party can allow opposition groups to form. It can use rule of law rather than rule by party dictate. And it can let religious groups cater to the spiritual needs of the Chinese, many of whom are rushing into a me-too materialism.
Fifty years after the "revolution," let's stop finding excuses for this troubled giant and its authoritarian rulers.
Let's see China for it has been, what it is today - and what it can be.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society