TODAY is the 50th anniversary of the moment when the revolutionary Mao Tse-tung climbed atop the gate of Beijing's Forbidden City and proclaimed the People's Republic of China. War preceded and tumult followed.
He was the worst of Communists, embodying world revolution when Josef Stalin was rhetorically more restrained. He was the greatest of liberators, unchaining a giant from feudal slumber.
He was the madman who proclaimed a great leap forward on sheer willpower that broke the nation. Where class, age and education were venerated, he was the paranoid who sicced teen-agers on parents and peasants on gentility, to destroy the social order and national genius.
In contrast, successor Deng Xiaoping made things work. Mao's political monolith combined with Deng's capitalist road is a contradiction that, so far, prevails.
For most of the past 5,000 years, China has been the greatest nation and civilization on earth with the most people, education, science, military power and civil order. For the past 300 years, it has fallen behind Europe and, in the past 150 years, North America.
A Chinese dynasty had the mandate of heaven and fell when it lost that. Order turned to disorder until a new mandate appeared. Many felt that Mao had such a divine order after Sun Yat-sen destroyed the failing Manchu dynasty in 1911 and disorder followed.
To his admirers, Mao embodied the greatness of China and brought in a dynasty that would build monuments as yet unimagined. The flaw was that he was the worst of Westernizers, an apostle of Marx the German and Lenin the Russian, both now discredited in their homelands.
And while China's gains of the past 50 years are immense, in nuclear weapons, education of women and Shanghai skyscrapers, they are equaled in other countries that shook off socialism or never had it. In these 50 years, China should have advanced as it did, or more.
China today is 1.2 billion people, powerful, a menace to neighbors, booming and suspicious. Communism appears doomed to irrelevance. China's greatness, for good or ill, will continue. Communism can be seen as having had little to do with it. Yet it still rules politically and brooks no enemies, real or imagined.
While the Communist Party will celebrate this first 50th anniversary in power, it is unlikely to see a second. On the 100th anniversary, China will most likely be the greatest nation, its system unrecognizable as Maoism. That will have been a passing phase, a brief dynasty, a curiosity of history.