Jiang Zemin's farewell meeting with President Bush in Texas on Friday will mark the passing of China's "third generation" of Communist leaders.
Mao Tse-tung established the People's Republic, and Deng Xiaoping brought it into the world economy; now Jiang proclaims as his legacy the abstruse and awkward "three represents." The Communist Party now represents "productive forces" and "advanced culture" as well as the traditional "masses."
If the Chinese people are ever to achieve their full potential, the fourth generation, after Hu Jintao's expected anointment as Jiang's successor next month, needs to articulate a coherent new vision based on political pragmatism rather than contrived party ideology.
The leaders should shape China's future with "three realisms": Reform the dictatorial political system, reduce bloated and dangerous military spending and reverse archaic policies on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
* Political reform. Deng resuscitated China from the disastrous economic policies of the Mao era. Jiang has consolidated economic liberalization and helped bury discredited Marxism. But neither leader dared alter the totalitarian features of the Leninist system, fearing the loss of Communist control.
Indeed, in his speech last year inviting entrepreneurs to join the party, Jiang firmly rejected even the possibility of multiparty democracy. In rigidly adhering to one-party dictatorship, Chinese leaders are on the wrong side of history. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have demonstrated that democracy is entirely compatible with "Asian values," political stability and economic prosperity.
The structural weaknesses in China's economy -- rampant corruption, lack of legal accountability -- can be cured only by the transparency and rules-based system fostered by political openness.
* Military expenditures. Beijing says it devotes 18% of its budget to modernizing the army, surpassing other countries in the region except its Communist ally, North Korea. Western experts believe the figure is much higher. Even as it spends massive amounts on military hardware, China pleads for developing-nation status to lower its U.N. dues and goes hat in hand for Western money to develop the countryside, to clean its environment and belatedly to fight an AIDS epidemic.
Despite Chinese doctrine that portrays the U.S. as an inevitable enemy, American trade and technology transfers have fueled China's economic growth and military modernization. No country covets Chinese territory or poses a military threat to its political system, but misguided Beijing policies based on paranoia, propaganda and a sense of perpetual victimhood can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
China's legitimate concern for secure sea lanes to ensure the flow of Middle East oil does not require another blue-water navy in the region. The U.S. presence has preserved freedom of the seas for half a century and will continue to do so. A China that is not expansionist need not fear containment. Benign American military superiority, inevitable in any event, is not a bad scenario for China's future development.
* Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang. China's approach to Taiwan and its treatment of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang continue to deny China the dignity and international respect it seeks, something the 2008 Beijing Olympics alone will not provide. Beijing continues to rely on the use or threat of military force to resolve disputes within and beyond its borders while selectively invoking or ignoring international law.
Although China has never governed Taiwan, it claims a right to take it by force, contrary to the U.N. Charter. China's military exercises and missile firings in 1996 closed the Taiwan Strait to shipping and commercial aviation, in violation of international law.
After winning its civil war with the Nationalists, the Communist regime "liberated" the independent states of Tibet and Xinjiang in 1950 while the world was preoccupied with war in Korea. China's cultural genocide in these formerly autonomous regions is Taliban-like and reminds the world that Maoism is not dead. For China to fulfill its aspirations and become a truly great nation, it must become a normal one. A prosperous, democratic and peaceful China will find no enemies in the West.