One year ago, at his first press conference as premier of China, Zhu Rongji startled many of his countrymen by declaring that he favored democratic elections, but he would "need some time" to study it before elections could be held for senior positions such as his own or the president's.
Mr. Zhu's visit this week to the United States provides an opportunity to inquire about the progress of his thinking on the critical issue of political reform.
US-China relations have become so toxic that Americans may pose the question provocatively, which would evoke a predictable response that the US should stop interfering in China's affairs.
A respectful candor might be more productive in advancing US interests and narrowing differences on this and other issues. Both sides have much to learn.
After organizing numerous election-monitoring missions throughout the world for the Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter to work on issues of peace and democracy, I was invited by the Chinese government to observe village elections and advise it on ways to improve the electoral process. The Center established a China project and has sent teams to seven provinces on six trips. Each time, Chinese officials invited our criticisms and responded constructively to our recommendations.
Leaders from the National People's Congress asked our thoughts on election procedures and incorporated some of our comments into the new elections law.
Last fall, however, the momentum for reform slowed, and the government imprisoned citizens for organizing an independent political party.
Some Chinese leaders insist they remain committed to extending elections to higher levels. But in this year of the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy - with layoffs and labor unrest - they fear instability. After a century of turmoil, the entire country shares that fear.
However, stability, as President Clinton said of China, cannot be purchased with political repression. Indeed, the best method to assure stability is free elections.
Before visiting China, I had thought the only obstacle was political will, but the task is more daunting. Even if the Chinese leadership were committed to democracy, it could not be implemented soon. A competent technical foundation and substantial civic education are needed. Without these, elections can be a source of instability.
Roughly 75 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people live in 1 million villages. Using a secret ballot and multiple candidates for each position, villages began holding elections a decade ago. Non-Communists can run for election. No one knows how many villages conduct elections democratically. But based on our small sample and interviews with officials, we concluded that the village electoral process is a serious and positive development. We've seen provinces where the rules are being implemented well and others where elections were not free. Most villages that we visited conducted elections with some flaws.
National leaders support village elections in principle, but they are, in fact, a very low priority. While the elections are conducted at the local level with supervisors from there or the provinces, the central government coordinates the process, a near impossible task for the seven people working full time on it with a trivial budget.
This brings us to the questions for Zhu. A year after saying he would study the issue, what has he concluded? Does the government have a plan or a timetable for introducing direct and competitive elections at the township, county, and provincial levels? Competent officials in the provinces and Beijing could do this. Will the government recruit them and give them resources to implement a plan?
The Chinese Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Liberties guarantee the right of association.
What procedures are being considered to permit groups of people to register and nominate candidates for office? Can non-governmental organizations or political parties that had been associated with the Communist Party have the freedom to nominate candidates on their own?
Regrettably, some US businesses think that the Chinese government is right to postpone political reform, but that is shortsighted. If the economy starts to decline, stability can be assured only if people can use the safety valve of elections. It will be too late to consider this when Chinese people run to their banks to withdraw their savings.
Free national elections cannot be instituted overnight, but a 10-year plan could reassure the Chinese that their government will be accountable and permit peaceful change within a stable framework. The time to fix the roof is before it rains.
*Robert A. Pastor, a professor of political science at Emory University, in Atlanta, directed the China Project at the Carter Center from 1996 to 1998.