China's proposed new constitution is an attempt by its leadership to reconcile conflicting needs. The first is to reassure its people that recent reforms will last. The second is to ensure that the collective leadership shaped largely by party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping does not lose control.
The leadership's most important imperative is to ensure a long period of political stability and economic growth that leads to relative prosperity by the end of the century.
This requires revival of a legal system seriously damaged by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It also requires that the people be reassured that reforms carried out by the current leadership will endure. A new constitution is a form of reassurance.
The other need is to insure that political control will not easily pass out of the present leadership's hands. For instance, Mr. Deng's position as chairman of the Military Commission of the party's Central Committee, gives him control over the armed forces. Yet as a matter of principle, the present leadership does not want the armed forces to be under the explicit control of the Communist Party.
One way for Mr. Deng to retain control over the armed forces would be to step up to the revived position of chairman of the republic, or chief of state. In many countries it is the chief of state who is the commander in chief of the nation's armed forces.
But Mr. Deng is said not to want to be burdened by the ceremonial duties chiefs of state must perform. Eventually, it appears, a compromise was found whereby under the new constitution a new central military commission will control the armed forces.
The chairman of this commission will be appointed by the National People's Congress (the national legislature). Mr. Deng is considered most likely to be appointed chairman of this new commission. The party's military commission will continue, but its functions will probably be changed. This new constitutional arrangement means that the armed forces will be under dual control.
The new constitution defines the rights and duties of citizens in greater detail than the present one, which was enacted in 1978. It guarantees freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and religious belief, but in practice this is limited by existing laws which permit ''education through labor.''
The new constitution fails to mention the right to strike, guaranteed in the existing constitution. Failure to mention this right, a spokesman said, does not necessarily mean all strikes are illegal.
From a Western viewpoint, therefore, there are many aspects of the proposed new constitution that cannot be considered ideal. At the same time it is certainly an improvement on the two previous constitutions, of 1978 and 1975.