Leading Article: China alone will create its new self

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Are there things we would like post-Deng China to do? There most certainly are. Are there any ways of obliging China to do them? There almost certainly are not.

The West's list of requests is as long as it is familiar: free Tibet, and lay off Taiwan; release political prisoners and guarantee human rights; stop shooting criminals; curb official corruption; establish the rule of law in business contracts and civil litigation; relent over Hong Kong and permit at least a semblance of democracy.

But the point is that "the international community" has almost no leverage on China. Political threats cut no ice at all and China, like the old Soviet Union, makes a point of never making political concessions in order to win economic advantages. How, then, should we cope with the fact of our own impotence?

One way is to give up, and appease - to kow-tow to China. In a truly repellent TV performance last week, Sir Edward Heath told us that China was too big for democracy and told Hong Kong doubters to shut up and learn to enjoy what was coming to them. Most people in the West will find that option unbearable.

Meanwhile, there is another duty - to think intelligently about how China may develop. The regime will change eventually - but in response to internal dynamics, not to events in the outside world. Deng achieved what Gorbachev failed to achieve: he introduced a market economy into a Communist system, pulling the state back to give individuals wide economic freedom without destabilising the Party's power monopoly.

Post-Deng China, all the same, is one of those regimes committed to the great 20th-century fallacy - that you can have development without democracy. The Shah of Iran, Haile Selassie and General Pinochet all fell for it, but in the end sawed off the branch on which they sat. Prosperity and new opportunities do not, in the end, create a grateful population; they awaken criticism. Deng transformed the mental landscape of China, shepherding its people into a new world of choice and possibility. At first, they were dazzled by it all. But the Chinese are growing used to asserting themselves, and the official party dialect no longer describes the world they live in.

The Communist Party is ceasing to be the "leading force" in society. It can hinder the capitalist economy, but it is less and less needed to help that economy's natural growth. At some moment in the future, the regime will either wither away or take an unpopular stand which will reveal it, in the eyes of this new and independent Chinese society, to be an obstacle. And then it will fall.