China's leaders, led by elder statesman Deng Xiaoping, have embarked on a sweeping program of economic and administrative reforms. If successful, China's billion people will see their lives transformed by the end of this century.
The recently concluded session of the National People's Congress was an important step in the execution of this program. It adopted a new Constitution, asserting the rule of law. It approved the sixth five-year plan, presented by Premier Zhao Ziyang, the first of a series of five-year plans designed to quadruple total industrial and agricultural output value by the year 2000.
It accelerated the transformation of the rural economy begun in 1979 by abolishing the administrative and political functions of the commune, thus turning the commune into a purely economic organization.
China remains a communist country, and the Chinese Communist Party remains firmly in control of all the levers of power - political, economic, and military. But within this iron framework, Mr. Deng and his disciples - Premier Zhao and General Secretary Hu Yaobang - have committed themselves to experimentation and change on a scale seldom witnessed since the establishment of the People's Republic 33 years ago.
Time and again, in his marathon report to the National People's Congress, Premier Zhao struck at the notion that socialism (i.e., communism) is egalitarianism, that it protects the inefficient and backward at the expense of the progressive and efficient.
''Our socialist state encourages the advanced and must in no way protect the backward,'' Mr. Zhao said in one notable passage. The context indicates the problem: As of today, backward, money-losing enterprises are still being protected. Mr. Zhao's exhortation will be effective only if lower ranks of the bureaucracy take him at his word.
China has tried out the Soviet model of a highly centralized command economy emphasizing heavy industry at the expense of consumer needs. The foundation of the country's modern industry was laid down in the 1950s according to the this model. China produced steel, tractors, cars, and trucks, machine tools, heavy electrical equipment - and the nuclear bomb.
As in the Soviet Union, so in China, there was enormous waste and inefficiency. The population doubled, while the country plunged politically into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). China could barely feed and clothe its people. Growth continued, but there was a pile-up of unusable steel, untransportable coal, unsellable machinery and goods of all kinds.
The victory of Mr. Deng's pragmatic, results-centered policies at the December 1978 third plenum of the party's Central Committee began the process of economic transformation. But progress has been slow, and there has been resistance from ''ultra-leftists'' who prospered during the Cultural Revolution, as well as from unimaginative middle echelon party and state bureaucrats. The 12 th Party Congress of September this year finally brought about a Central Committee that is younger, better educated, and more supportive of the Deng line than the previous one. The National People's Congress in turn approved a five-year plan far more realistic and modest in goals than previous ones.
Messrs. Deng, Zhao, Hu, and company now confront what is probably the most difficult part of their program - to apply throughout China's vast nationwide bureaucracy, particularly at regional and county levels, the reforms they have initiated at central, state, and party levels. If the leadership cannot energize the regional bureaucracy where day to day decisions are made, it cannot succeed.
The coming year will see a major rectification drive within the party, as well as within the state bureaucracy, to uproot corruption, feudalism, and inefficiency. It is not to be a witch-hunt, but it will have to be thorough-going if it is to be successful.