BEIJING — IN the bitter struggle for primacy inside Zhong Nan Hai, Beijing's leadership compound that is nicknamed the ``new Forbidden City,'' it appears the moderates are gaining the upper hand. The workings of the government and the Communist Party in China are secretive in the most settled of times, and divining who is in the ascendancy is more an art than a science. But the state apparatus is throwing out hints that moderate Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang may be on the verge of a comeback.
After more than a month of student demonstrations for democracy, after workers joined in a mass antigovernment uprising, and Mr. Zhao's rival, Premier Li Peng, declared martial law, it seemed Zhao's star was waning. Now all the signs say Zhao is back and is gaining support.
A key Zhao supporter is about to return to the fray, and he has the power to make some decisive changes in the leadership lineup.
Wan Li is Chairman of the National People's Congress, and in that capacity has the power to sack the premier. He has cut short his visit to the United States, after briefing President George Bush on China's turmoil.
Mr. Wan has been traveling overseas during the most remarkable scenes in the capital since the establishment of communist rule 40 years ago. But he has nevertheless come down strongly on the side of the students, going so far as to question the legitimacy of the prime minister's martial-law declaration.
``We will firmly protect the patriotic enthusiasm of the young people in China,'' the official New China News Agency quoted Wan as saying while overseas.
In what appeared to be a broadside against Premier Li, he added, ``All these problems should be settled through democracy and the legal system, and we should adopt a rational and orderly way to settle the problems.''
The students have called on Wan to summon an emergency meeting of the National People's Congress. According to Western diplomats, China's leaders have been doing little else but meeting in recent days.
``We understand there is extensive consultation among the authorities here on how to bring off the situation in a peaceful way,'' said Australian ambassador to China, David Sadleir.
Conflicting reports have emerged from the leadership's crisis talks, with some sources saying Zhao was accused of ``four crimes,'' including giving state secrets to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during last week's Sino-Soviet summit and demonstrating weakness in his dealings with the students in the early days of their protest.
Other sources say there was pressure on Li to resign.
Mr. Sadleir says diplomats ``clearly'' have little idea about what's really going on inside the government, ``since those are private domestic discussions.'' But, he points out, ``there have been no changes in appointments, no new appointments, and no resignations. The duly constituted government of this country is still firmly in place. I have no reason not to accept that. The circumstances are of debate and discussion among the authorities on the one hand, and among the demonstrators on the other.''
``There's been nothing to suggest how deep the divisions might be or the different points of view [the leaders] might reach, but clearly it's a serious situation,'' the ambassador said. But, he added, ``if you look at the media each day, there are some different points of view expressed, and I think that reflects the discussion going on.''
Indeed, New China News Agency confirmed in an oblique way that Zhao is still general secretary of the Communist Party, laying to rest rumors that he had been forced to resign by the conservative faction.
That view was later confirmed by Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in discussions with European ambassadors, diplomats said.
The news media are, for the moment at least, in the control of the reformist faction. In a massive exaggeration of support among antigovernment activists, the New China News Agency yesterday estimated that `` 1 million people ... took to the streets in the Chinese capital'' on Tuesday. Foreign correspondents estimated that the crowd numbered 100,000.
And for the first time, the official news agency pointed out that most of the slogans shouted in the streets called for the sacking of Li Peng. ``Since Premier Li Peng declared imposition of martial law in some areas of Beijing last Saturday, people took to the street every day just as well,'' the Xinhua article concluded.
China Central Television is also reporting the demonstrations from the point of view of the students, for the first time showing Army trucks held up by student's barricades.
The People's Daily newspaper, however, carried front-page messages of support for Li from party committees in the Air Force, Navy, and some military districts.
Diplomats warn that it may still be too early to declare Zhao a clear winner in the leadership stakes. They say the opposing faction may yet regain the upper hand.