President Jiang Zemin of China has done the hat trick. 1997 has been a great year. Hong Kong returned to the motherland without a hitch. The Communist Party Congress laid his competitors low and affirmed his undisputed leadership. Then, in Washington, sharing the spotlight with President Bill Clinton, he has won ceremonial acknowledgement of China as partner of the United States pretty much on his own terms. Too good to be true? It is all true but still, maybe, a bit too good.
Jiang's base is the Communist Party, more than 50 million strong, covering the whole enormous country and penetrating every aspect of life. Since Deng Xiaoping threw off the straitjacket of central economic planning in 1978, the party has adapted itself to riding the revolutionary change he set in motion for the lives of China's 1.2 billion people. But it has grimly maintained its political monopoly. China remains a one-party state. There is no opposition. Dissent is suppressed, too often brutally. The Tiananmen massacre nine years ago demonstrated how far the regime would go to assert its supremacy. But, however determined it is not to be moved, it finds itself compelled to feed an irresistible force that will over time alter and dislodge it.
This force is not just the entrepreneurial spirit that Deng let out of the bottle, although economic activity certainly promotes it. Prosperity is politically neutral. The impulse stems from a deeper need. The vast land of China has strong regional interests that have never been tightly knit into a coherent whole. Competition is keen for the funds and the preferment that Beijing can grant. Business has always been done largely through a network of connections, which can easily shade off into corruption. Tidal surges of mainly rural job seekers are now free to travel and are difficult to control from the center.
The emperors ruled loosely, helped by entrenched tradition and the Confucian ethic. Today, communism as an ideology is bankrupt; the means of production are, however erratically, being shifted to private hands. Mao Zedong and his "Thought" are discredited. The sprawling, throbbing society needs something new to hold it together - a binary cement, a legitimate code of law coupled with recognition of human rights: law, blocking arbitrary rulings by a hidden few on top; and civil rights, anchoring the individual in heavy seas of change.
The process is in motion. In 1978, when Deng began to "modernize," there were no non-political courts, no legal system, no legal education. Deng set about rebuilding them all, together with legal norms, domestic and foreign, absorbing elements of American law. Since 1979, China has sent experts abroad to study civil, criminal, copyright, investment, property, and company law - as well as security regulation. Today there are some 100,000 lawyers in China and the system is teaching law to judges on the bench who got their jobs as party hacks. Law is again a profession. And, of course, that is essential in attracting money from abroad that has fueled the economic rocket.
The achievements should not be romanticized. Progressive laws and regulations are not necessarily enforced. But the trend, though slow and spotty, is discernable. On Jan.1, 1997, sweeping revisions of criminal procedure law made major changes for the better, at least on paper, in the way criminal cases are investigated, prosecuted and tried, turning away from the practice of reaching a decision administratively before the trial in court. There is still no habeas corpus. The powers of the police to arrest and detain have been limited, but anything is possible in the name of national security. Nonetheless, American scholars detect movement toward one of the main elements of due process, the presumption of innocence.
As for human rights, China has acceded to a number of international conventions and joined the UN Human Rights Commission. A hard-nosed American monitor, the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, reports more than cosmetics: Since 1990 "China has experienced an unprecedented surge in the number of conferences, articles and books devoted to human rights ... theory and practice."
Many observers believe that the Chinese leaders are sensitive to world opinion and that, therefore, violations of justice and human rights should be openly and forcefully condemned, officially and unofficially. On the other hand, overt and economic pressure is likely to be counterproductive. Demands for haste are understandably odious to leaders preoccupied with mind-boggling tasks: giving food and meaningful work to 1/14th of the world's farmland. In the obsolete state-owned factories to be shut down, 100 million workers would lose not only wages but also housing, food, and health benefits unless the government improvises a safety net. The necessary measures cannot be dictated from abroad. To be understood and legitimate, they must spring from Chinese culture.
Time is a decisive element. The US, as an independent, Christian democracy, needed 74 years and a civil war to outlaw slavery. Over time, Beijing must develop a federal structure to preserve national cohesion by allowing cultural autonomy in regions like Tibet, as it already has done in Hong Kong and has promised in Taiwan. Outsiders could help, not by kibitzing but by supporting the irresistible force moving China in that direction.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.