Peking — China's top two leaders have disagreed over the pro-democracy student protests, and one of them - Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang - may step down from his post. Speculation to this effect has become more widespread as Chinese government spokesmen have failed to clarify whether there has been a falling out between Mr. Hu and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
The speculation is based on reports from private Chinese sources that Hu has been held responsible for an increasingly liberal political atmosphere that developed last year. It encouraged some intellectuals to criticize the party and question socialism. According to the party-controlled press, this atmosphere led to student demands for more freedom and democracy and to the protests that swept through a dozen cities beginning last month.
European press reports, based on unconfirmed Chinese sources, have said that Hu has taken the brunt of the responsibility for these events and will be replaced by Premier Zhao Ziyang. Western diplomats say there is almost certainly a struggle within the party, but they do not agree that Hu has been knocked out of the No. 1 position as a result.
``He could be accused of a lack of firmness [in dealing with the students], but not of bourgeois liberalism,'' said one diplomat, using the party's catch phrase for the kind of thinking it wants to jettison. ``I'm almost certain he'll keep his membership in the Politburo.''
Regardless of Hu's fate, China has taken a sharp political turn. The party's authority and political orthodoxy have been strengthened. The tightening of party controls and a national propaganda campaign against Western ideas such as democracy and capitalism have appeared to end discussion of political reforms and of a more open cultural policy, especially toward literature and the arts. The prospects for more academic freedom also appear remote.
In a crackdown on the press, the official New China News Agency affirmed yesterday that the Chinese press must strictly follow the party line. Several newspapers, including the official national newspaper of the Communist Youth League, China Youth News, have changed editors because of criticism that they were too lenient in reporting the student protests or had failed to reprint party-approved statements late last year. This week, party-controlled newspapers have printed identical political commentaries and reports on their front pages.
There have also been changes in the party's propaganda department, and the newly appointed propaganda chief, Zhu Houze, may have lost his job.
Reliable reports say that Mr. Deng advocated a tougher line in dealing with the students than previously and has struck out broadly against lax ideological discipline within the party. These views are reportedly shared by other veteran leaders, including senior military officers, who have not always warmed to Deng's economic initiatives but who now appear united with him as he reaffirms the party's authority.
There are also reports that an enlarged party meeting has been convened to consider the leadership question. But there is no clear evidence that such a meeting has begun. The meeting, when and if it occurs, could be an extraordinary session of the 210-member Central Committee, with other party agencies invited to attend. One such agency is the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, which has begun to expel a handful of intellectuals from the party (see story on this page).
Hu has often been mentioned as a successor to Deng as China's senior leader. But Deng told a visitor this week that he, Deng, will almost certainly have to stay on after next fall's crucial party congress, rather than retire, as he had hoped.
The first official hint that Hu may be in political trouble came in a statement from the party's international liaison department. In responding to a question from the United Press International yesterday, a spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny that Hu was the party secretary, a post Hu has held since early 1980.
Hu has also missed several important engagements in the past week and has not been seen or heard from in public since late December, though several of his close associates have continued to appear in public meetings.
Observers here are watching to see if Hu shows up at several key engagements this weekend, including meetings with Finnish and Hungarian Communist Party delegations.
Deng gave assurances this week that the recent change in political climate does not affect China's economic reforms and its policy of opening to the outside world. He told a Japanese political leader Tuesday that China would persist in these policies. Without political stability and unity, it would be impossible for China to carry out its construction, Deng said.
And Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang told the vice-president of the World Bank that no big changes to economic reform were planned. He said that financial reforms were proceeding faster than expected.
Price reforms, however, have been postponed indefinitely, according to a government announcement yesterday. Many Chinese people have been worried about price increases this year, and the student dissent has made the government sensitive about further social unrest. Officials have said in the past that they want to avoid mistakes made by the Polish government several years ago, when state-mandated price increases aggravated a political crisis.