IN ONE OF THE MANY cavernous rooms of Beijing's Great Hall of the People late last week, nine men emerged from behind a screen to greet the press. Just named to China's ruling body -- the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party -- they came out in single file, in rough order of political power.
That almost charmingly anachronistic theater underscored that the world's most populous nation still largely operates, as always, by the rule of man, not the rule of law.
It also began the next chapter in the world's greatest balancing act -- the continual accommodations by which the world's premier authoritarian party-state seeks legitimacy.
Imagine an elephant (the party) gingerly crossing a deep gulf (Chinese society's extraordinarily rapid economic and social changes) on a thread-like high wire (the thin belief among Chinese in anything resembling socialism). No wonder with virtually every message, the party stays on point: stability, stability, stability.
At last week's party congress, it did take a firm step: the first orderly succession since the party took over in 1949. Mao Zedong came to power with the revolution; Deng Xiaoping rose from post-Mao jockeying; Jiang Zemin ascended after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Hu Jintao, now leading the party's so-called "fourth generation," was just anointed in a relatively seamless way.
Not that there weren't behind-the-scenes machinations, prompting talk that Mr. Jiang might not retire as head of the party, state and military. Having become party chief, Mr. Hu now is expected to become China's president next spring -- though Mr. Jiang might retain military leadership.
Mr. Jiang surprised Sinologists with 13 years that brought China from post-Tiananmen isolation to greater strength and a more constructive world role. In the name of -- surprise! -- stability, he also expanded the party's tent, adding a theory to the party charter that shifts the party from the vanguard of workers and peasants to that of new "advanced forces," thereby embracing China's growing entrepreneurial class.
What a long strange trip the last half-century has been for Chinese capitalists, from running dogs to being badly needed to sustain the long march toward a better life, the one thing that matters to most Chinese. Of course, the party is following, not leading, desperately trying to keep up with the market forces set loose by Mr. Deng in the 1980s.
Note there's no mention here of human rights, nor was there much in foreign coverage of the party congress; China's leading dissidents all have been imprisoned or exiled. The party's ideal is a really big Singapore, the tiny city-state that defines authoritarian state capitalism. But with a huge, largely poor and rural nation fraught with economic, environmental and governance problems, an elephantine Singapore remains very far off -- a very hopeful fantasy of safe harbor at the end of a long and likely harrowing high-wire act.