Long march

December 26, 2003

TODAY, CHINESE officialdom will unleash a notable degree of fanfare to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the birth of Mao Tse-tung, the founder of modern China and for a quarter-century its omnipotent Helmsman.

In honor of Mao -- whose corpse still is on view in a mausoleum in the symbolic heart of China, Tiananmen Square -- a new symphony has been composed from that old Communist standby, "The East Is Red." And there's a flurry of Mao books, art, stamps, TV shows and even rap recordings.

But this week China also marks the 25th anniversary of its first major steps away from Mao's radical egalitarianism by, among other things, allowing peasants to resume tilling tiny plots -- the onset of its phenomenal long march toward a market economy.

And last Monday, China's legislature, for the moment, at least, turned that continuing march into a gallop by voting to amend the nation's constitution to explicitly protect for the first time private property rights. This follows the Chinese Communist Party's welcoming last year of entrepreneurs.

Put all that together: China still celebrates one of history's most tyrannical Communist dictators, while enshrining the property rights of a rapidly growing number of Chinese who have gained greater control of their homes and working lives.

This sharp contradiction reflects the vast distance China has traversed -- often by two steps forward and nearly two steps backward -- over the decades since Mao and his minions persecuted landlords, expropriated industries and communized farms.

But Mao, the nation-builder, remains a handy propaganda tool for a party bereft of ideological credibility and desperately striving for legitimacy by trying to keep up with its citizens' newly released lusts for wealth and national power.

At the same time, the party's clinging to the symbol of this tyrant symbolizes its continuing quest to maintain its high concentration of power. Despite party moves in recent years to stage more low-level elections and provide a more independent judiciary, Mao's heirs largely retain Mao-like powers to ignore any laws and crush anyone they deem threatening, be they guilty of free speech on the Internet or of trying to alert the world to China's AIDS crisis.

Tellingly, the new constitutional guarantee says property will be protected only if "obtained legally." That sounds proper and necessary in a corrupt society in which state property is rapidly being converted, often by shady deals, to private hands. But it also opens the way for selective charges. Some of China's nouveaux riches are now wealthy enough to be acquiring China's first private helicopters, but if their party ties aren't firm they remain vulnerable to its arbitrary power, arrest and the Chinese gulag.

China, indeed, has succeeded in traveling a long way on the road to a market economy. But its really long march is evolving into a nation living under the rule of law after several thousand years of rule only by the dictates of men, under the imperial system and Communism. And even if the new protection of private property strengthens business transactions, the Chinese journey to the rule of law has only just begun and remains far less advanced than the nation's stampede to embrace market forces.

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