CHINA'S vague new five year plan offers little new in the way of economic reforms. The party plenum it emerged from was significant mainly for its lack of clear authority, power, and direction. The general drift toward a more open economy - away from the centralization advocated by hard-liners after the Tiananmen Square crackdown - continues. That's a small positive sign. But the hard-line and moderate forces inside Beijing are locked in a political stalemate. The two factions couldn't compromise enough even to appoint new members to Politburo seats that have been vacant since last June.
China's inertia stems in part from a leadership struggle that probably won't be resolved until Deng Xiaoping leaves. New factions can then emerge. Much depends on how well the Chinese economy, now muddling along, is performing at the time.
Intractable and unfathomable internal fights in Bejing would make the transitional period China is going through difficult in the best of times. Current world problems make the situation even more sensitive. The breakup of order in the Soviet Union, the chaos resulting from perestroika, and the disintegration of Soviet economic reforms is viewed with extreme wariness in Beijing. This is one reason China's new five year plan was stillborn. Efforts to reintroduce Western-style economic reforms will be harder if the Soviet Union goes bottom up.
On the other hand, economic improvement in Poland, for example, or some other newly liberated ex-Marxist state, could provide the right signal.
China's leaders are also faced with new stirrings in the hinterlands. If the republics in the Soviet Union want political reform, China's provinces want more economic autonomy. The provinces seem bound to develop a more liberal market economy regardless of what Beijing does. They may end up de facto dictating China's economic future.
As for China's social future: Repression is not at the white-hot level of post-Tiananmen days. But it is real. Intellectuals feel it, as do those conducting foreign exchanges. On the other hand, there's evidence of a slowdown in Beijing's propaganda machine.