In a garden in southern China, an old man sits, waiting for his long-held dream of reunification with Hong Kong to be realized next year. The family members who form a protective screen around aging Communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping assure us (though this still seems unclear) that he has months or years to live. But the issue of what comes after Mr. Deng's relatively stable time in power has troubled China for some years already - and still seems far from resolution.
Clearly, this succession struggle will affect the global balance of power for decades to come. And now, before matters there spiral out of control, is the time to nudge China's leaders and people toward democracy.
The American business executives who do brisk commerce with China have thus far been remarkably successful in convincing policymakers that Beijing's Communist leaders have done a good job at managing the internal strains caused when they chose to remake their vast economy along capitalist lines. "Don't rock the boat by mentioning democracy," is these folks' message. They point to modest moves toward ensuring greater public participation in some local affairs, and argue that such political glasnost will inevitably trickle up to the national level as the country becomes more prosperous.
But that did not happen in Yugoslavia, which also saw free- market economic progress and some local democracy in the years before it crashed into bloody chaos.
In China, meanwhile, there are signs that many parts of the country are seeing a collapse of public order and an escalation of local challenges to Beijing's jurisdiction - while the crucial issue of control over the military and public-order apparatus seems seriously in question.
Consider these news items reported in recent weeks:
*In late March, the official Chinese news agency lauded the success of a campaign that last year succeeded in dismantling no fewer than 6,754 "illegal toll booths" from around the country. (Read: illegal attempts to impose local tariffs.) But the report also admitted that the problem "began to crop up again earlier this year."
*Reports have multiplied that President Jiang Zemin, usually considered Deng's preferred successor in all spheres including the military, has been unable to exercise control over the powerful People's Liberation Army. Among these reports, one from a Hong-Kong paper to the effect that military boss Zhang Wannian (who commanded the recent military exercises around Taiwan) has overruled Mr. Jiang in a number of key command appointments.
*One of Jiang's few allies in the crucial Central Military Commission had been Gen. Ba Zhongtan, head of the paramilitary People's Armed Police. But General Ba was removed from power earlier this year, amid talk of bribe-taking. This plunged the issue of how to regain control over public order in the country's vast interior - and who should do this - into even greater uncertainty.
*In one of the first propaganda campaigns launched in his own name, rather than under the rubric of "Deng thought," Jiang called for stronger "spiritual values" and even a return to "religion-related work." Don't expect Tibetan Buddhists or other repressed minorities to have their religious freedoms restored any time soon by this campaign. The number of political prisoners in Tibet is at an all-time high. But still, Jiang's attempt to revive religious ethics suggests a deep crisis in his party's previous means of ideological motivation.
The proliferation of such reports says clearly that the boat of nationwide governance in China is already leaking badly. Even (or especially) if no one rocks it, this boat looks as though it is headed for the shoals of chaos under the weight of its own stresses and strains. Is this what the cautious, business-backed China policy of the Bush and Clinton administrations has helped bring about?
But wait. A more forward-looking alternative is available, one that has a good chance of promoting a more stable outcome for China, and the world. Americans know about this tested mechanism for managing the strains that rapid modernization brings to large, multifaceted economies. It is called democracy and respect for human rights. Now, surely, is the time to share that secret with all our friends in China.