TODAY, THE PEOPLE'S Republic of China turns 53. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, in the Analects, discussed how a man acquires wisdom and fortitude over the years, a process that may be applicable to countries as well. 'At 30, I stood firm,' he wrote. 'At 40, I had no more doubts. At 50, I knew the mandate of heaven.' In 1979, when the People's Republic turned 30, it indeed stood firm. Before that, under chairman Mao Zedong, the country zigzagged and flip-flopped so dizzyingly that officials never knew from one day to the next what the current policy was. But after Mao's death, with Deng Xiaoping at the helm, China launched itself in a new direction, that of economic reform and opening up, the same course that China is embarked upon today. In 1989, when it turned 40, the People's Republic had no doubts about the correctness of its policies. Confronted with the biggest protests it had ever faced, it vacillated for some weeks before deciding to ride roughshod over student protesters asking for greater democracy and an end to official corruption. The party was sure that it, not the students, had the answers to China's problems. Confucius went on to say, about himself but, by extension, about mankind in general: 'At 50, I knew the mandate of heaven. That is the beginning of the acquisition of wisdom.' In 1999, when it turned 50, the People's Republic understood the mandate of heaven - the need to function according to international norms. Indeed, that year Premier Zhu Rongji unveiled major concessions that the Chinese were prepared to make in order to join the World Trade Organisation. Beijing finally achieved its objective last year. Joining the international community is a process from which there will be no turning back. Today, at the age of 53, the People's Republic is at a crossroads. There is a need to pass the baton to a younger generation. If that does not happen, China's evolution into a country governed by laws and institutions will be dealt a major setback. But if it succeeds, it will help transform China into a modern democracy. The Chinese Communist Party, at its 16th congress to be held next month, will also have to chart its course for the coming five years. As announced last year by General Secretary Jiang Zemin, the party will admit entrepreneurs into its ranks, a dramatic reversal in its appraisal of the role of capitalists in the country's development. Thirty-five years ago, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, a paranoid Mao purged two of his closest associates, Liu Shaoqi, then head of state, and Deng, for taking the capitalist road. Now, capitalists can be honoured members of the party. Another task confronting China in the coming years is the hoped for reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. Chinese leaders have exercised restraint after the election of the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian as president. Prudence and patience are likely to remain the watchwords for Beijing where Taiwan is concerned. A more immediate task, and one that requires deft handling, is the relationship with the United States. President Jiang will be going to Texas this month to meet US President George W. Bush. Beijing wants to cement this relationship before Mr Jiang steps down next month at the party congress. All signs are that his successors will continue to pursue a co-operative and constructive relationship with Washington. As for the future, according to Confucius, at 60, 'my ear was attuned to the reception of truth'. At 70, 'I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries'. If China follows the course outlined by Confucius, then the future is hopeful. Having its ear attuned to the reception of the truth should enable the party to govern wisely - perhaps even to the extent of deciding that it should share power with other political parties. And lastly, if China's leaders acquire the wisdom to pursue their goals without overstepping the boundaries - that is, without abusing their power - not only China's people, but the rest of the world would applaud as well.