BEIJING — DESPITE widespread popular resistance, China's hard-line leaders have strengthened state controls in a bid to end a power struggle against moderate Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang. Conservative leaders have recently tightened press controls, threatened workers with reprisals for continued activism, and attempted to muster party support for martial law and other repressive steps.
Several intellectuals and journalists who support the movement say they fear the measures may lead to a crackdown against China's potent pro-democracy movement.
Few ordinary Chinese joined a march by students through Beijing Sunday. And the number of students continuing a 16-day-long sit-in in central Tiananmen Square has dwindled to 10,000 activists.
The most severe sign of the conservative offensive is likely to come this week as the party's Central Committee approves the purge of party General Secretary Zhao, say Chinese intellectuals and Beijing-based diplomats.
Beijing has yet to confirm reports that senior leader Deng Xiaoping and other old-guard leaders ousted Mr. Zhao late last week and have summoned senior party members to approve the removal.
The embattled party general secretary is considered the leader most enthusiastic about easing strict central controls on the economy and granting basic political freedoms. The old guard has reportedly accused him of sympathizing with students who have staged a potent movement for clean government and political liberties since mid-April.
Although harsh, a campaign against the liberal movement is unlikely to be as severe as similar party efforts against dissent since 1949, according to Chinese intellectuals and journalists.
Also, during the six weeks of unrest the party has seen its popular support wane, and it lacks the mass-based backing necessary for a large-scale crackdown, they say.
Outspoken dissident Ren Wangding said Saturday that the leadership has drawn up a list of more than 30 intellectuals and workers who are likely to face arrest, job dismissal, or other punishments.
``Perhaps we are entering a dark period - I hope it will end soon,'' said Mr. Ren, who completed a prison sentence last year for helping to lead China's 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement.
Conservative leaders in the past week have launched a broad effort to snuff out support for the student movement and its liberal aims through stricter press controls, intimidation, and an effort to renew a ``united front.''
In a clear reversal by a chief supporter of the student movement, National People's Congress leader Wan Li said Sunday that conspirators have taken ``advantage of the student movement to create turmoil deliberately in an attempt to overthrow the leadership of the Communist Party and to change the socialist system.
``We must expose the schemes of a handful of people who have been instigating and creating turmoil,'' Mr. Wan said.
Wan's sudden turnaround dashed the hopes of students and other activists that he would convene a meeting of the congress to remove Premier Li Peng, a leading conservative and political nemesis of Zhao.
Mr. Li also gained strong support during the weekend from the party's Central Advisory Commission, a highly influential body of elder cadres, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a loose association of political groups under the guidance of the Communist Party.
Li Xiannian, head of the CPPCC, charged that ``a small minority ... has been plotting, creating, instigating, and whipping up disturbances in a political attempt to negate the leadership of the Communist Party and the socialist system.''
As if presaging a political crackdown, Li Xiannian said that the party had failed to protect its own primacy and ``to combat bourgeois liberalization,'' the target of a virulent, conservative struggle in 1987.
The party has also reestablished a firm grip on the press after a brief period in which the news media offered balanced, implicitly supportive reports on the pro-democracy movement.
The military has occupied key newspaper offices and radio and television stations since May 20. And, since May 23, a conservative propaganda committee, replacing moderate Politburo standing committee member Hu Qili, has shaped stories that have uniformly hailed martial law.
Also, the state has required several journalists to report on their activities during the recent unrest, many journalists say. Reporters have backed the students more openly than workers in any other profession.
Finally, the party has dispatched ``investigation groups'' to several factories and offices in Beijing to discourage supporters for the pro-democracy movement, say several intellectuals and workers.
The party teams have encouraged many factory and office directors to threaten their employees with pay cuts or dismissal if they continue to join the protests, they said.
The hard-edged campaign so far has placed the blame for the turmoil on Zhao and other leading reform figures, distracting the party rank-and-file from the liberal movement's aims of democracy and clean government.
In a bold editorial that slipped by the renewed censorship on Friday, Worker's Daily said, ``Anyone trying to replace democracy with autocracy and create a situation of silence will be in danger.
``Such silence is like a sleeping volcano that will erupt sooner or later,'' the editorial said.