AS China's Communist Party old guard prepares to fete the 40th anniversary of their revolutionary victory, the Marxist state they fought to establish is in crisis. Soldiers have scrubbed the blood of Beijing citizens from Tiananmen Square, the symbol of the ``people's republic,'' and hoisted bright red flags around the capital for celebrations of the 1949 revolution on Oct. 1.
But since the crushing of popular protests for democracy, China's fate has been linked more precariously than ever to the longevity of one man: paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
Many Chinese say they will never again hail Mr. Deng as their nation's savior, a pioneer of bold economic reforms, a deliverer from decades of isolation and catastrophic political campaigns under Mao Zedong.
``People used to admire Deng,'' says a second-year Beijing University student. ``Now they hate him, they think he is terrible and worse than Mao.''
Deng lost more than prestige when he denied basic freedoms and sanctioned the Beijing bloodbath. He sacrificed power to conservative party elders and the military, scuttled his succession plans, and endangered his market-oriented economic reforms, diplomats and scholars say.
Ultimately, however, the Chinese people will pay the price for Deng's failings. Despite his blackened image, Deng remains the man holding this embittered country together. He is still the mediator between the party's die-hard revolutionaries and a generation of younger reformers. He is still the bridge, however weakened, between Maoist China and a modern nation.
As rumors of the 85-year-old leader's ill health persist, foreign diplomats and scholars offer bleak assessments of the new power balance in China, possible succession scenarios, and the future of Deng's modernization strategy.
``Deng is not as powerful as in the past,'' says an Asian diplomat. ``There are indications that he is losing control of the situation.''
One of the clearest signs of Deng's diminished power has been the reemergence of party conservatives such as Chen Yun and Peng Zhen, octogenarians who Deng had persuaded to withdraw into semiretirement in 1987. Deng enlisted the party veterans to suppress the democracy movement last spring, and has had to share power with them ever since, say Beijing-based diplomats on condition of anonymity.
``The old revolutionary leaders are very pleased to find themselves useful,'' says the Asian diplomat. ``It has been too peaceful for them.''
Recent decisions to intensify Marxist indoctrination, send city youths to farms for ``tempering,'' tighten state control over the economy, and bolster party committees in factories, schools, and government bodies all bear the stamp of party elders opposed to Deng's radical reforms.
Schooled in guerrilla warfare and the crude, heavily ideological politics of the Mao era, the veterans are out of touch with China of the 1980s, diplomats agree.
Party veterans ``still think they are dealing with the China of the 1950s, when the public was ignorant and isolated,'' the diplomat says.
While summoning back the old guard, Deng has also undermined his earlier efforts to remove China's generals from the political arena. By ordering an Army crackdown in June on unarmed demonstrators in Beijing, Deng revived a pattern of military dominance that has signaled the disintegration of Chinese dynasties for centuries.
``Deng had attempted to put the military back in the barracks, but that process has been reversed,'' said Roderick MacFarquhar, director of the Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. ``The Communist Party was unable to solve the problems it faced by political means, so it effectively abdicated and opted for a military solution.''
Finally, Deng has undercut his goal of achieving a smooth succession by ousting his prot'eg'e, party general secretary Zhao Ziyang. Mr. Zhao, the victim of increasingly vehement attacks by party conservatives, could face ``counterrevolutionary'' charges at a party plenum reportedly scheduled for October. Zhao's incrimination, while unlikely, would mark a major defeat for Deng, diplomats say.
Having sacrificed his prot'eg'e and failed to establish a formal procedure for designating a successor, Deng, like Mao, can do little before he dies to prevent a fierce struggle from erupting among those who would replace him as China's godfather figure.
If Deng died tomorrow, most observers say President Yang Shangkun would be best positioned to assume the role of paramount leader. However, strong rivalries are believed to divide China's regional military commanders, making it difficult for any Chinese leader to command great loyalty, diplomats say.
Mr. Yang is the senior member of a power clique including Premier Li Peng, Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, and Beijing Party Secretary Li Ximing, which has been dubbed the new ``Gang of Four'' by diplomats in reference to a radical faction led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing that rose to power during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The new ``gang'' could be short-lived, however. Yang and the younger men appear to be united by a narrow coincidence of interests: All enjoy greater power under martial law. Yet this tie to martial law has made them extremely unpopular.
Some diplomats say Deng will attempt to groom the new party general secretary, Jiang Zemin, to replace him. But Mr. Jiang, who lacks firm institutional backing, has little hope of becoming more than an interim compromise leader such as Mao's successor Hua Guofeng, they say.
None of the potential successors commands the broad influence that has enabled Deng to skillfully manipulate competing party factions and push forward bold economic reforms.
China is already moving toward greater central economic planning and ``neo-Stalinist'' rule that is likely to emerge in the immediate post-Deng era, diplomats and scholars say. The conservative tone is evident in a new, four-point propaganda campaign. Chinese sources say this campaign calls for opposing privatization in economics, pluralism in politics, liberalism in ideology, and individualism in ethics.
Like Qing Dynasty rulers of the early 1900s, who tried in vain to uproot Western influences, Chinese Communist leaders are warning of ``hostile imperialist forces abroad'' and ``bourgeois liberalization'' in a bid to stem the flowering of democratic ideals from the West.
Yet both within the party and among city dwellers, there are signs of ongoing resistance to the new conservative, xenophobic party line.
``Now, as before, when the impact of Western ideas seems to be impossible to contain, an attempt will be made to prevent things from going too far,'' said Professor MacFarquhar.
``Just as when the empress dowager tried to hold back the tide, there is a danger that the dam will burst and all will be swept away.''