Which post should the standard bearer of China's ``second revolution'' fill - leader of the Chinese Communist Party or head of government? The question is an urgent one for Zhao Ziyang, who has been premier since 1981 and acting general secretery of the Communist Party since January this year.
Most observers say Mr. Zhao must take the higher-ranking party post, even though he openly prefers to remain as premier. At stake are continuity in policy and stability in leadership after senior leader Deng Xiaoping and other ranking party veterans leave the scene. Without a strongly reform-minded party leader who has credibility in the government bureaucracy, China's modernization plans would certainly go adrift.
After almost three months in both jobs, Zhao complained last week that the workload was too much for him. ``China is so big and there are so many affairs. I believe that even the work of the head of government or the head of the party is very hard for one person to manage alone,'' he told journalists. Zhao added that he preferred the job of premier over party secretary, perhaps indicating his frustration with inner-party politics.
Chinese observers say Zhao has encountered some heavy resistance in trying to consolidate his position as Communist Party head. Last week, there were rare public hints of his disagreements with party veterans, showing how strong the challenge has been from conservatives who reportedly are promoting their own candidates for general secretary as well as the premiership.
These observers say that Zhao's confirmation as party secretary, which is expected this fall, cannot be taken for granted. The surprising strength shown by a group of military and party leaders in dismissing Hu Yaobang earlier this year points to the possibility that they could also block Zhao's confirmation.
``He's now in a good position, but we can't be sure what the situation will be like a few months from now,'' one observer said of Zhao's prospects.
Some Western diplomats play down the challenge to Zhao's leadership, saying he is the sole candidate with wide credibility. ``There isn't any real alternative to Zhao as a party secretary,'' one says. ``They may try somehow to limit his power ... but there are no other candidates of any consequence.''
A principal critic of Zhao has been Deng Liqun, former party propaganda chief who was eased out of the post two years ago. Mr. Deng (no relation to Deng Xiaoping) is said to aspire to the top party post. Only six months ago, such a possibility would have seemed highly improbable. A Western diplomat said Deng's ambition is still unrealistic, but some Chinese take it seriously.
An influential conservative, Deng was an architect of the 1983 ``antispiritual pollution'' campaign against Western cultural influence. He shares the revolutionary generation's concern that public support for the party's Leninist doctrines has eroded and that ``socialist morality'' is crumbling.
Last week Zhao let slip what observers said was an indirect criticism of Deng Liqun at a meeting with delegates of the National People's Congress (China's national assembly) from Hong Kong and Macao. Zhao said ``some people'' have wanted to launch a large-scale struggle against ``bourgeois liberalization'' or the influence of ideas seen to weaken party rule. These people, he said, were ``doomed to fail.'' He repeated his promise that the political offensive would not become a major struggle such as occurred in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
``Some people fear we are only paying lip service in the fight against bourgeois liberalization,'' Zhao said, according to a reporter at the meeting. The reason for that concern, Zhao said, is that they realize that leftist tendencies no longer have any market in China.
Chinese observers say Zhao's reference to ``some people'' included Deng Liqun, who reportedly said earlier that the limits Zhao announced in January on the party's political offensive reduced its ideological warfare to lip service. ``We oppose those who advocate capitalism, but don't oppose those who practice capitalism,'' Deng reportedly said, possibly referring to reformers such as Zhao who have advocated market-oriented policies.
Observers say one sign that Zhao has been able to curb conservative ideologues was the short life of a revived campaign to ``learn from Lei Feng.'' Lei Feng was a model soldier whose highly mythologized life was used in the early 1960s to teach Chinese youth party-approved ethics. A fresh Lei Feng campaign was launched last month but ended almost the day it began.