What if mainland China with 1.2 billion people pulled off an economic miracle as dramatic as Hong Kong's, Taiwan's and Singapore's, while remaining politically Communist? What threat to world stability would it become?
That fantasy is fact. Since Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978, China's gross national product has been growing almost 9 percent a year, this year at 14 percent. If this continued unchanged, China would become the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, and Communist to boot.
The 14th Communist Party Congress meeting this week in Beijing is based on the premise that Mr. Deng's contradiction works, that China is not broke and does not need fixing. While he lives, it could hardly think otherwise.
Mr. Deng dominates the proceedings as Mao Zedong did earlier congresses, yet on the first day the frail, 88-year-old leader was not there. He holds no office, yet was praised by all hands as the guiding force and chief architect of "socialist reform."
In the congress' first personnel shuffle, an advisory commission composed of elders known for obstruction of free market development was abolished. Market economics is the new line. "Reform is a revolution," party secretary Jiang Zemin said, "a revolution whose goal is to liberate the productive forces. It is the only way to modernize China."
But politically, the party is as determined to retain a monopoly of power as it was when shooting down democracy demonstrators in 1989. "We must not tolerate liberalism or any defiance of organization and discipline," Mr. Jiang continued. The leadership refused to rehabilitate Mr. Jiang's predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, who was disgraced for failing to suppress those demonstrators.
Marxist dictatorships are trying to democratize, at least in form. Others have repudiated communism. Only Vietnam is attempting what China is, the marriage of free enterprise and monolithic Communist power. Fidel Castro's Cuba, from fear of where capitalism leads, forbids market forces a toehold.
South Korea and Taiwan have shown that capitalism can thrive under a rigid political dictatorship, but then undermines it. People who exercise entrepreneurship and imagination come to expect freedom of thought in other areas. They did in 18th Century France and contemporary Russia, and will in China, too.
Pressures for political change will become unstoppable in China when Deng Xiaoping has left the scene. Fidel Castro is right about that. What kind of threat would a prosperous, busy, self-confident China be to its neighbors? Much less of a threat than it has been for the past 40 years.