Three weeks ago I visited Tirana, Albania, and on my way out of the airport to board my plane, I was stopped by an Albanian customs "official." She looked me up and down and asked: "How much money are you carrying?" There was a certain Jesse James tone in her voice. I told her I had $3,500. "$3,500," she repeated, her eyes lighting up. "He has $3,500," she said to her fellow customs agent. "Where are you from?" he asked, apparently trying to determine if I was a diplomat and therefore immune from this bureaucratic stickup. "I'm from The New York Times," I answered. "Let him go," the man said, apparently concluding it wouldn't be good publicity to separate me from my money.

These two Albanian customs agents had a lot more in common with Bonnie & Clyde than Coopers & Lybrand. They were a reminder, though, that in many formerly Communist countries, the successor to communism is more often kleptocracy than democracy. That fact is too often forgotten in today's debates about China, Russia and other once-Communist states.For instance, the Kosovo Liberation Army is now talking about uniting all the Albanian communities in the Balkans into a "Greater Albania." That is a frightening thought - not because Albanians aren't entitled to unification, but because they haven't proved they can properly run one Albania, let alone five put together. The whole debate in Washington about China is when it will become a democracy. The much more important question - for them and us - is how it will become a democracy. How will it make the leap from where it is now - with antiquated institutions and a police-state apparatus increasingly unsuited to its rapidly modernizing economy - to a more open, rule-based system, without chaos in the transition?

It is one thing for Albania to collapse; it would be quite another for China to start spewing refugees, weapons and financial scams. "China had 70,000 traffic deaths last year - roughly 630 deaths per 100,000 cars. America had 21 deaths per 100,000 cars," notes the Stanford University China scholar Mike Oksenberg. "It's because China has all these new highways with inadequate passing signs, or warnings about oncoming hills, or even traffic lights in some places, and no free press to report on it all. Their growth is simply outrunning their existing systems of governance and education."

That's why the ultimate test of U.S. China policy is not whether President Clinton shook his fist hard enough at President Jiang Zemin. The ultimate test is how well the United States uses its influence to promote a more rule-of-law system in China - one that first constrains the Chinese state, and then gradually lays an institutional foundation that can carry Chinese society forward after the inevitable collapse of the Communist Party or its evolution into an electoral body.

If Congress wants to do something useful on China, it should spare us the chest-thumping and instead appropriate the funds sought by Clinton to train lawyers, judges and law professors in China. When Communist states collapse, before the new institutions have evolved you are much more likely to get Russia - where they have a free press and the Mafia guns down inquisitive journalists - then you are the best case, Poland, which had a Catholic church and trade unions.

But preventing Albania in China takes a lot of engagement on a lot of levels. Those who argue that America should simply isolate China and hasten the collapse of its system now are just begging for a big Albania.

Fatos Lubonja, editor of the Albanian literary journal Endeavor, talked to me in Tirana about post-Communist Albania: "After communism we had total equality in Albania. We were all at zero. There was no real infrastructure, no one really had property or contacts. Politics became just another business, because being a politician meant you could or could not give stamps of approval. The free market here was considered freedom to do anything. One of the West's great errors was that during the collapse of communism, sometimes we changed the people (in charge), but we did not really change the system. Instead of building a free economy, based on initiative and risk, we created a criminal economy. No one understood that without the software (of real governing institutions), Albania is just a jungle."

New York Times News Service