Peking — The western hills outside Peking are aflame with autumn foliage. The French tricolor flutters in fraternal amity with China's five-starred red flag in Tien An Men Square.
The trial of the "gang of four" approaches. And a young cook in a noted Peking restaurant has been commended for exposing the extravagant wining and dining of the Minister of Commerce, Comrade Wang Lei. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's state visit is the most elaborate of a long list of state visits to China during the current season.
The short space between the baking heat of August and early September and the chilly dust storms of November is Peking's best season, which is why another notable event takes place annually around this time: an exhibition of the Imperial Palace museum's most celebrated paintings, from Gu Kaizhi of the 4th Century to Tang and Sung masters like Gu Hungzhung and Liang Kai.
The razzmatazz of the United States presidential election is heard only as a dim echo here. Peking has been extremely discreet, not wanting to be seen to be taking sides.
Among citizens, President Carter seems to be known as the man who normalized relations with China, Ronald Reagan as the man who wants to make relations with Taiwan official. But the interest of the citizenry does not really go much beyond idle curiosity.
Meanwhile, the honeymoon between China and US continues. Seven Chinese governors are visiting the United States, and a touring magic show led by Mark Wilson is helping to promote Sino- American friendship by such feats as levitating a young woman from one of the towers of Naking's bridge across the Yangtze.
It is, in short, a season without a great deal of what journalists would call hard news. The new Cabinet led by Premier Zhao Ziyang and First Deputy Premier Wan Li, complemented by Hu Yaobang as general secretary of the Communist Party, seems to be working harmoniously.
Foreign analysts continue to speculate on the relationship between the Zhao-Wan-Hu team and its mentor, Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, and the chairman of the Communist Party, Hua Guofeng. Some think Mr. Hua's star has waned and that even his chairmanship may be in doubt after the 12th Party Congress meets early next year.
On the other hand, the spokesman for President Giscard d'Estaing said that, after four hours of talks with Mr. Hua, the French President had the impression he was dealing with a man of real authority, realistic, lucid, and strongly pragmatic. No outsider can be certain.
Yet the press has recently carried stories that hint raher disturbingly, not so much of a classic power struggle, but of difficulties the new team is encountering from entrenched bureaucratism, feudalism, and factionalism. Everyone is for the four modernizations -- the drive to transform China into a powerful industrialized nation in 20 years.
Everyone is against the "gang of four" led by Jian qing, Mao Tse-tung's widow , who with the late Marshal Lin Biao plunged China into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution 14 years ago, and whose rule lased until a month after Mao's death in September 1976.
Everyone agrees that human beings are fallible and that the rule of law is preferable to the rule of individuals, that the holding of several concurrent posts by one person is abhorrent, and that talented younger people should be promoted to fill party and government posts long monopolized by an aging leadership at all levels.
But how does one bell the cat, or as the Chinese would put it, touch the tiger's hindquarters? How to get people used to privilege and power to retire, or to consider accountability to the public?
Commerce Minister Wang Lei, for instance, apparently took it as a matter of course that the exclusive restaurant Fengzeyuan should serve him and his friends its most costly dishes for the price of the day's special. Only when a young cook wrote to the party's central disciplinary committee was Mr. Lei forced to write an abject self-criticism and pay up to three years of accumulated bills.
Recent stories from Hebei and Shanxi provinces suggest that persons in power are still using trumped-up charges to rid themselves of opponents, just as they did during the Cultural Revolution, and that innocent bystanders are still caught in the cross fire. The persons cited are leaders at the county and district level. One wonders how many similar cases there must be nationwide.
Cadres who came to powe during the Cultural Revolution remain in place. Enmities dating from those days still affect present behaviour. And overall hangs the heavy, heavy burden of feudalism, a legacy of centuries of follow-the-leaderism that discourages the bright and the talented from throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the struggle for modernization.
Still, the western hills are aflame and the slopes echo with the eager chatter of red-scarved Young Pioneers, of couples arm in arm, of elders basking in the dappled sunlight. Despite floods and drought, the harves is bountiful. By and large, people are not angry with each other. That says a lot about the China of today.