BEIJING — IN the early summer heat of Beijing, soldiers lie in the dust under their trucks dozing or idly listening to demonstrators urging them to defy any order to march on the city. While the city remains firmly in the hands of its rebellious population, there is little doubt that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) could easily restore control if it chooses to do so.
The question now gripping Beijing is whether the Army is prepared to attack its own people.
The PLA was widely believed to be about to mobilize and crush the people's uprising in the early hours yesterday morning. But when dawn broke, the city was eerily quiet, and the people began to wonder: Did the soldiers refuse to march into the city or was the order simply never given?
The city is calmer than it has been in weeks. Army helicopters have stopped buzzing the crowds in Tiananmen Square. Many streets look almost deserted, and some of the roadblocks of building materials and disabled buses have been dismantled. Workers are kept home from their jobs by the total absence of public transport.
Rumors have the city's subway tunnels crawling with soldiers at the ready, and non-Mandarin speaking troops from Inner Mongolia on their way to the capital.
But Western diplomats say the reason there was no crackdown was that the order was never given.
``There is a very normal reluctance on the part of the Army to move against their own people,'' one diplomat says. But he says the troops are disciplined, and they will go in if ordered.
Other observers say the PLA is no ordinary Army. They say its 3.5 million soldiers are citizens too, and are just as disenchanted with the top leadership as their civilian compatriots.
One soldier pointed out that 40 years of propaganda - preaching that the PLA must serve the people - may have worked too well for the purposes of Premier Li Peng, who declared martial law last weekend. Even a statement by the martial law enforcement headquarters pointed out that the Army would continue ``loving the capital; loving the capital's people, and loving the young students,'' while it restored order.
The PLA is the world's most unusual fighting force. Until last year, the Army had operated without rank or official insignia, which were done away with by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1965 as too feudal, capitalist, and revisionary. The 23 years without an obvious formal chain of command were not easy ones for the Army, and young conscripts who wanted to stay out of trouble with their superiors had to memorize a confusing array of clues to the command structure.
The Army has also been called on to shoulder part of the burden of national modernization. As part of senior leader Deng Xiaoping's economic restructuring, the number of troops was cut, the defense budget was slashed by a third, and the Army was told to make up the difference itself. As a result, China is now the world's fifth largest weapons supplier and a major manufacturer of everything from cosmetics to stereo systems.
Defense factories that once produced tanks, aircraft, and arms have branched into toys, motorcycles, cigarettes, and fireworks. Soldiers grow fruit and vegetables, PLA hospitals are open to the public, liquor stores stock PLA wine, and Army trucks may be rented.
But there is a dark side to the cutbacks. They earned Mr. Deng the increased displeasure of very powerful foes, both military and civilian.
Deng is being denigrated by students and workers for not moving as far or fast as he might have with reforms. But most analysts agree that recent changes in Chinese society were possible only because he made them so. All of deposed Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's economic reforms owe their existence to Deng's support.
As part of his modernization program, Deng purged the party of many aged hard-liners, who make the conservative Mr. Li, who apparently rose to grab power last weekend, seem moderate by comparison.
Those old cadres who had obstructed Deng's plans for reforms are the same ones who purged him twice in his political career. They have plenty of axes to grind. Some observers say they are now supporting Li, and if they gain the upper hand, China could be plunged back into a level of deep conservatism that has not been seen for many years.
It seems Deng is left with few allies.
When Mr. Zhao was at the zenith of his prestige during the Sino-Soviet summit, he apparently laid the blame for the stagnation that sparked the mass demonstrations at Deng's door.
At the same time, Zhao appeared to praise Deng, saying that he remained the country's senior leader and was ultimately responsible for all decisions taken by the government.
``Its a very Chinese way of doing things,'' one diplomat said. ``A mouthful of honey and a dagger in the belly.''
Li appears to have sided with Deng's longtime adversaries, and the people in the streets are demanding his retirement.
This is not how Deng envisioned the end of his career. It is widely believed that he had been planning to gracefully bow out at the height of his power and prestige, having just engineered a major success in international relations, the mending of ties with the Soviet Union.
He did not want to be seen as having been unceremoniously pushed from power by rowdy demonstrators.
Yet, with every passing day, Li's own position becomes more untenable.
``By announcing strong measures and then not following them up, they have shown themselves as weak,'' says one observer of the men running China's martial law regime. ``They are proving themselves divorced from reality. What they say doesn't match what people see on the street.''
That contradiction, the observer said, may well be directly related to division in the military and the unwillingness of officers to enact the premier's orders.
For the first time, the protesters flooding through Beijing's streets have taken sides in what has become a political struggle for the leadership of this vast nation. The demonstrators are calling Zhao's name, and some analysts say that the man now believed to be under house arrest in the leaders' residential compound may be about to make a miraculous comeback.