With economic growth that defies gravity, China might seem like a thoroughly modern state whose stability rests on a bedrock of freedoms. Yet in a reminder of how far China has to go, the ruling Communist Party decided only this week to trust its subjects just enough to let them marry without first gaining permission from their employers.
The decree was another sign of a promised transition from rule by the party's "little emperors" to rule by law, an iffy process that's been called a descent from "heaven" to "earth." Another sign came this week when China's president and party chief, Hu Jintao, gave an address that used the word "democracy" eight times within two sentences. Mr. Hu asked the party's Politburo "to expand citizens' orderly participation in political affairs and guarantee the people's rights to carry out democratic elections, decisionmaking, management, and supervision according to law."
His words raise some hope that Hu might be China's political reformer in the way that Deng Xiaoping opened the economy after 1979. If he is a reformer, Hu has also been in a hidden power struggle with the old guard since taking office last November.
In recent months, Hu has visited the eight well-controlled political parties and groups that could form the basis for limited democracy. And he's made reference to the direct elections introduced in rural villages over the past five years. Still, Hu's goal may simply be to introduce elections within the party, as a way to weed out the corruption that's a drag on the economy and a source of popular distrust.
Putting on a façade of political pluralism while hanging onto one-party rule is an old trick among many nations in Asia. But places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea have shown that real pluralism can also create a prosperous stability.
If the Communist Party really wants to represent the people, it should open itself to political competition. China's economy thrives on competition. So could its politics.