Secretly, and no doubt contentiously, members of the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party are poring over drafts on how to reform China's one-party government. Top Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and the acting party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, have insisted that a blueprint for political reform be presented to the 13th Party Congress to be held this fall.
But the task has become more cumbersome than ever because of the fracturing of political power within the party this year.
Last summer, the prospect of reforming Chinese government stirred excitement among independent-minded social scientists who quickly exceeded limits of free discussion on the subject. Now, those same people are unable to disseminate their ideas, and some have been criticized for espousing Western political theories.
Hope for evolving a more open and less authoritarian political system has faded under Mr. Deng's leadership after last year's freewheeling discussions were quashed and especially since party energies this year have focused on defending its leadership and reprimanding intellectuals for pushing ``bourgeois liberalization.''
After several months of silence on the subject, Deng spoke out again in March, surprising many observers and deepening the skepticism of others. He insisted that political reform is still on his agenda. ``China's open economic policy is sure to facilitate political reform,'' Deng told the visiting governor general of Canada.
His announcement appeared partly as an attempt to assure progressive members of the party that all was not lost with the dismissal of party Secretary Hu Yaobang in January. This group includes the intellectuals and professionals who have been deeply discouraged by the resurgence of left-leaning party leaders. The success of Deng's economic program depends heavily on this group's support and its faith in Deng's leadership was severely shaken by Mr. Hu's dismissal.
Deng's ideas on political reform are vague. They can be found in a series of speeches made last year and were recently published in book form. The heart of the matter, he has said, is the relationship between the party and the government.
``Through reform, we should come to a proper way of handling the relationship beteen government by law and government by people, and between the party and the government in China,'' he told a Japanese visitor in September.
The biggest problem is how to separate the powers of the party and government, which have been tightly fused. The issue has been discussed since 1979, though few have dared offer solutions openly.
According to Deng's speeches, political reform must include a clearer divison of labor between party and government, a more irreversible delegation of powers to lower levels, and the elimination of overlapping and conflicting tasks between the two parallel structures. He has said some consensus on reform should be reached at this fall's party congress, but that a comprehensive program for carrying this out will require many years of work.
Deng's concern with political reform appears motivated by economics and his commitment to building a rich and powerful China. In several statements to foreign visitors he has acknowledged a fundamental incompatibility between the party as it is now organized and his goal of economic development.
``Reforming the economic structure without revamping the political structure will simply not work, because it will primarily come up against obstacles set up by other people,'' he said last year.
Many others, especially intellectuals, are concerned that the party learn the lessons of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when abuse of power and party factionalism peaked. Without some institutional constraints on the party's power, some Chinese say, there is no guarantee that such abuses will not recur. It seems improbable that limits on power would be the aim of any reforms outlined now, given the strength of conservative forces likely to dominate the congress.
Deng places part of the blame for China's underdeveloped political system on the Soviet Union, which was Peking's model. He once said that he did not think Moscow's was a very successful example to follow.
But Deng has also warned against a Western-style system of checks and balances which he once said would ``entail problems.''
Any change in China's power structure involves deeply embedded interests and numerous people and institutions. ``This requires us to steer a cautious course,'' Deng said.