SHORTLY AFTER seizing power in 1949, China's Chairman Mao Tse-tung had a plan: He considered mobilizing all comrades in the new communist state to kill a daily quota of flies and mosquitoes in an attempt to reduce insect-borne disease among his mainly peasant masses. He did. They did. And it worked.
The 1950s "Four Pests" campaign was one of many launched by the Great Helmsman in nearly 30 years as supreme leader of the People's Republic of China. Some were successful; the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were disastrous. But rule by imperial decree was and is the best way to govern the planet's largest nation.
Which is why Mao's successors followed suit; Deng Xiaoping's Four Modernizations and Jiang Zemin's Three Represents were similarly top-down, command-driven approaches to the mammoth task of controlling China. For China must be controlled. Tightly. A centralized oligarchy is vital for this. Democracy would be disastrous for China, for the United States and for everyone.
President Bush's second inaugural address was saturated with references to freedom and the need to shine democracy's beacon into the dark corners of the world. But America needs to be careful what it wishes for. A stable, peaceful and predictable China is vastly preferable to the vagaries and vicissitudes of a 1.3 billion-strong democracy, lacking the hardwired democratic institutions of an India.
China's leaders believe this, too. The rapid implosion of the Soviet Union chilled Beijing to the bones and still does. The Chinese ship of state is a supertanker; changing course within a democratic framework would be nearly impossible. When policies require rapid realignment, as they often do, a unilateral executive fiat is the right response. An example is China's 1979 One Child Policy, introduced to arrest the country's exponential demographic bulge and avert economic catastrophe. What society would willingly vote to restrict its right to procreate, let alone one so steeped in Confucian family values?
More unpalatable policies lie in China's future. As an aspirational middle class emerges in China, Wang Q. Citizen increasingly covets a car, a large home and domestic appliances, which will require heating, cooling and powering. Resultant stresses on world energy and resources are today unimaginable; Chinese appetites will need to be curbed. Tough decisions that would be political suicide in any democracy will have to be imposed from above.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has the hardest job on Earth. He must solve the ultimate Chinese puzzle. Walking a tightrope across a widening rich-poor gap, he needs to promote economic liberalization while withholding political reform. A misstep could plunge China into a democratic abyss. The results would be disastrous, especially if the process were volatile - Tiananmen Square on a national scale.
Many a country has sought to repair domestic fissures with the glue of nationalistic zeal; the same scenario in China could involve a patriotic attack across the Taiwan Straits or an armed excursion into the oil-rich South China Sea.
The recent announcement of impending China-Russia military exercises, purportedly to test cooperation in the global war on terror, is obvious saber-rattling close to the Taiwan Strait. This latest Chinese military posturing has drawn the usual reaction from some U.S. observers that China's increasingly strident anti-U.S. moves are the product of a communist regime in Beijing.
The United States can't afford to indulge in this kind of self-delusion.
An even worse scenario would be disintegration. If given a vote, China's ethnically, linguistically and economically disparate provinces could choose to go it alone as nations. China could easily unravel unless China's Communist Dynasty rules with wisdom and resolve, and this does not involve democracy.
China will face many diseases in its unstemmable rise throughout our century. These afflictions will not be borne by insects, but they will require handling with the same swift edicts and mass response as when Chinese swatted flies for their chairman 50 years ago.
Like it or not, communism - or to use the boilerplate popularized by Mr. Deng, a "socialist market economy" - with its matrix of failsafe controls strictly applied by the Beijing leadership elite, works for China. And a workable China is in the best interests of the United States.
Gary Hogan is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Pentagon.