HONG KONG — China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping deserves much credit for trying to modernize the country and remove it from its Maoist ideological straitjacket. He emphasized pragmatism, not ideology. He put China on the path to a market economy. And, perhaps most important, he tried to lift China from feudal practices, such as lifetime tenure in office and incessant power struggles within the leadership.

Deng declined the top positions in both the Communist Party of China and the government, though he richly deserved those posts. He rejuvenated the leadership by pressuring older people to go into retirement. Under his leadership, a Central Advisory Commission was first set up and then scrapped so that younger leaders could initially benefit from the advice of their elders and later be freed from their interference.

Whether Deng’s attempt to make China a more normal country continues to make progress will be known in a few weeks, when the Communist Party holds its 16th party congress. Then, it will be known whether President Jiang Zemin — the country’s state, party and military leader — will step down and pave the way for the next generation of Chinese leaders.

According to the Chinese Constitution, Jiang will have to yield the presidency next March, after having served two full terms. But the party constitution doesn’t require him to give up the position of general secretary, which he has held since 1989, or the chairmanship of the party’s Central Military Commission, which he has held since 1990.

At the last party congress in 1997, held months after Deng’s death, all party leaders aged 70 and above agreed to step down, to pave the way for younger leaders. The sole exception was Jiang, who was then 71. The understanding then was that this was to be a one-time exception, and that Jiang would step down in 2002.

The expectation was that Hu Jintao, who was then 54, would succeed Jiang as party leader. Just as Jiang had been picked by Deng to be the “core” of the third generation of leaders — following Mao and Deng, leaders of the first and second generations, respectively — so had Hu been chosen by Deng as the most promising member of the fourth generation.

Deng himself tried to avoid the paranoid Mao’s mistakes in first anointing and then getting rid of potential successors. Unfortunately, he ended up like Mao, removing both his designated successors. Jiang was a last-minute choice, made in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.

Thus, up until now China has not had an orderly political succession. If Jiang makes way for Hu in November, it will be the first time that power had been passed from one man to another in a normal fashion. That would move the country toward greater stability. But if Jiang allows himself to believe that he is indispensable, then he would set back for many years the country’s progress toward institutional rather than strongman rule.

The signs so far are good. The 16th party congress, originally scheduled for September, was postponed to November, apparently to enable Jiang to meet U.S. President George W. Bush in October while he still had all of his titles. If the intention is for Jiang to keep those titles, then there would have been no point in postponing the congress. In fact, Jiang would have appeared in a stronger position if he had been confirmed in his titles by the party congress before flying to Texas to meet the American president.

Moreover, China has announced that the congress would “sum up the basic experience the party has acquired” since the beginning of Deng’s reform and opening-up policies, especially the period from 1989 to the present. This means the congress will make an appraisal of the period of Jiang’s stewardship. This, too, suggests that Jiang is going to step down.

If Jiang doesn’t retire, then Deng’s carefully laid plans for a smooth transition from the third to the fourth generation of party leaders would have been for naught. No other official in his 70s will feel the need to step down. The move toward strengthening party and government institutions would have been derailed. And the cause of political reform would have been dealt a mortal blow.

Jiang is no doubt thinking about his position in Chinese history. If he steps down from all his posts, he will go down in history as the man who ushered China onto the road toward political reform and democracy. Not to do so would be disastrous, for both the Communist Party itself and for China.

Almost a century ago, Sun Yatsen — whom the Communists honor as “the great precursor of the revolution” — believed China needed to go through a long period of political tutelage. But even he would not have imagined that, in the 21st century, a single individual could still be considered indispensable for the governance of 1.3 billion Chinese.

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