WHAT if Wan Li, and not Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, or Zhu Rongji, is running China? History, of course, is more missed opportunities and failed hopes than the enactment of sweetness and light. We catch a few glimpses of the radiance, however, in Mr Wan's just-published Selected Works, one of the most open-minded manifestoes ever put out by a top official. It is possible to be a senior cadre, and not be fossilised, reactionary, and, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, 'as slow [in reform] as a woman with bound feet'. A former vice-premier and chairman of the National People's Congress, Mr Wan, 79, was Mr Deng's first choice for premier in the mid-1980s. The job went to Mr Li in 1988 and Mr Wan joined what some Chinese intellectuals call 'the opposition with Chinese characteristics', meaning the legislature. Shortly before the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989, hotheads in the NPC and the student demonstrators were calling upon Mr Wan, then touring North America, to return home early to impeach Mr Li. In the last week of May, Mr Wan's Beijing-bound plane was mysteriously diverted to Shanghai. The next day, an anchor on national television read out a statement allegedly written by the NPC chairman supporting the leadership's 'resolute stand on curbing the counter-revolutionary rebellion'. For the Works, Mr Wan personally edited the 115 articles and speeches that he wrote or made from 1944 to 1994. Understandably, there was not a word on Tiananmen Square. Mr Wan, however, has timed the book's release at a critical juncture: the start of the post-Deng era and gathering signs that many aspects of Mr Deng's reforms have been revised or adulterated. Much more than his mentor, Mr Wan's commitment to no-holds-barred reform is unquestioned. 'It is permissible to reform and not succeed; it is not permissible not to reform,' was the title of an address to senior cadres in 1988. Mr Wan, who began his career as a rural cadre in his native Shandong province, has been a life-long champion of the market. While party boss of Anhui province in the late 1970s, he dismantled the commune and introduced the 'household contract responsibility system', which gave farmers unprecedented autonomy. In talking about the 'market economy', Mr Wan is one of the few leaders who do not prefix the term with the problematic qualifier 'socialist'. He is a staunch supporter of the special economic zones, one of Mr Deng's most controversial legacies. While touring Shenzhen in 1985, the then vice-premier said: 'Not a few people harbour an attitude of doubt towards the zones. Yet practice has proven that it is right to run the SEZs.' Mr Wan incurred the ire of ideologues by his tolerant attitude towards the 'mistakes' and other dubious consequences of the open-door policy such as corruption, prostitution and polarisation of income. 'These problems can be seen as those that crop up in the midst of advancement; they can be gradually rectified in the course of practice,' he said in the same year. Together with such followers of Mr Deng as former party chiefs Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Mr Wan has come up with before-the-times views on political liberalisation. His landmark 1986 speech on 'rendering decision-making more democratic and scientific' probed the outer limits of political reform under one-party dictatorship. Mr Wan wanted the top echelons of party and government to recruit a large assortment of scholars, experts, retired cadres, and even non-Communist Party members to take part in decision-making. 'We must link up with even more talents, concentrate the wisdom of various parties, so that they [the advisers] can really fulfil the functions of offering their suggestions, [and] doing research and consultation,' he said in a conference on the 'soft sciences'. Mr Wan hoped the 'consultants' would bring forth new ideas, particularly from the cadres he described thus: 'Nobody knows what he is doing or thinking about; nor does he know what others are doing or thinking about.' Having spent the first half of his career with farmers, Mr Wan is a gallant spokesman for the least-favoured sector of Chinese society. He is one of few leaders to have publicly admitted the government had squeezed peasants in order to speed up industrial development: 'Peasants are scattered in the villages. In spite of their large numbers, it is difficult for them to focus their views and have them reflected to the central [authorities].' Tiananmen Square and the subsequent turn towards conservatism in Chinese politics have prevented Mr Wan from putting through his ideals. However, as NPC chief from 1988 to 1993, he laid the foundation for legal reform, 'power sharing' by the legislature, and some form of checks and balances within the system. As Mr Wan sees it, there is no future for the market economy unless rule of law can replace rule of personality. 'Many people have recognised that market economics is an economy that is under the legal system,' he said in 1992. 'Yet in the Chinese tradition, it has always been rule of personality rather than rule of law, and both the legal concept and the legal foundation are very weak.' As President Jiang intensifies efforts to monopolise power, Mr Wan and other members of the liberal wing have at least temporarily been sidelined. Selected Works, however, could provide a viable alternative to, or at least a cogent critique of, the existing order. In a 1986 speech on 'new concepts', Mr Wan attacked rural cadres who forced peasants to surrender their produce to state procurers and forbade them to buy and sell in the free market. He also warned that 'farmers in some areas had 'waged rebellions' because contracts [with the government] had not been honoured and [state procurers] had collected their grain without paying'. There can't be a more eloquent criticism of the recentralisation policy introduced by Vice-Premier Zhu in early 1994. 'Without a healthy and comprehensive democratic and legal system, the country will never become stable,' Mr Wan said a few months after the June 4, 1989, disaster. On a daily basis, the Jiang administration is talking about 'stability being the key link'. It is unfortunate that Mr Jiang is taking rather different steps to achieve that elusive goal.