IN the war of nerves between reformists and hard-liners struggling to win control of China, fears are again growing of a clash between Chinese troops poised on the outskirts of the capital and anti-government demonstrators. Rebellious students, supported by workers and peasants, still hold the center of Beijing despite seven days of martial law.
Yesterday, senior military commanders accused the protesters of being ``counterrevolutionaries'' plotting to overthrow communism. Their statement was carried on the official Radio Beijing.
``A small group of people are creating chaos with the aim of rejecting the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and rejecting the socialist system.'' If their ``plot'' is allowed to succeed, the statement said, ``the success of the last 10 years of struggle by the entire nation and the task of socialist modernization will be obstructed.''
The statement renewed fears among demonstrators that the Army planned to roll into Beijing to crush their protest, despite a tactical pull back of troops Tuesday. But diplomats say there may be no one with the power at the moment to order decisively the Army to attack.
The language of the message was some of the harshest used against the students since a hard-line editorial last month accused them of being unpatriotic.
That editorial became a rallying point, with students demanding the punishment of its author - reputedly senior leader Deng Xiaoping. Now the People's Liberation Army's general command is urging soldiers to ``learn deeply'' from the editorial.
The tough talk from the military commanders hinted that Mr. Deng, the chairman of the military commission, is behind Li Peng's hard-line stand.
``This editorial is stronger in tone than the earlier one,'' a Chinese observer said. ``It proves Deng Xiaoping is still in control.''
The military commanders also called on troops to follow the orders of Premier Li Peng. Mr. Li leaped to prominance at the weekend, declaring martial law and issuing an impotent order calling in the troops to sweep away the uprising that has posed the biggest threat to the government in 40 years of communist rule.
Some Western diplomats say Beijing is still ``ringed with steel'' and estimate there are around 100,000 soldiers backed by armored personnel carriers in the countryside.
The immediate impact of the Army's criticism of the rebels was to rally support for the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square from students and citizens.
But students have vowed to continue their sit-in as long as neccessary to try to influence the outcome of the behind-the-scenes tussle for control of China between Li Peng and the man believed to be marshalling the reformist forces, the moderate general secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang.
Diplomats say the message could mean the hard-liners were winning the upper hand, despite recent indicaitons that the moderates were gaining strength.
Wan Li, the moderate chairman of the National People's Congress, is in Shanghai after cutting short a trip to the United States. Mr. Wan is thought to be assessing the situation before coming to Beijing as a player. He has the technical authority to call an emergency meeting of China's parliament and to sack the premier, but the Congress has never acted independently of the Communist Party.
As the bitter tussle for control of the country's future moves away from the students and into the corridors of power, diplomats say the whole country is paralyzed and waiting for some direction from Beijing.
``Public opinion is the wild card in the leadership struggle,'' said one diplomat, ``and Zhao is playing it for all its worth.''