A MONOLITHIC communist state is crumbling. One by one, defiant regions break away from the central government until the nation disintegrates into anarchy and civil war.
The United States, anticipating catastrophe as its former adversary loses control over a large nuclear arsenal, launches a preemptory strike. As bombs decimate the war-ravaged country, millions of refugees flood the world.
This harrowing scenario unfolds not in the Soviet Union, but in China, according to a fast-paced, new Chinese political thriller entitled "Huang Huo," or "Yellow Peril."
Penned surreptitiously after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown by a Chinese writer known only as Bao Mi, or "Keep Secret," the book is the first mainland novel to emerge that probes the consequences of the Beijing massacre and predicts Communist Party collapse.
The underground novel was smuggled out of China and published in Taiwan in June. Copies are now circulating among mainland Chinese intellectuals. Chinese authorities, apparently angered by the book's iconoclastic conclusions, reportedly arrested the author in Beijing on Dec. 22.
The six-volume, 1,100-page epic dramatizes the worst fear of many Chinese: an irreversible slide into chaos. "The Soviet Union's today is China's tomorrow," quips a Chinese military officer, repeating a saying popular during the 1950s Sino-Soviet alliance and used ironically today.
For many Chinese intellectuals, from dissidents to members of the Communist Party elite, the Soviet crisis holds a double-edged significance. On the one hand, the end of communist rule in the former Soviet Union adds an aura of inevitability to the prediction that China's repressive regime will fall in coming years. The rising wealth and autonomy in provinces, rampant corruption, and the discrediting of Marxism already weaken the Chinese state.
On the other hand, many fear China will not be able to avert the political disintegration, ethnic unrest, and economic collapse that has plagued the Soviet transformation. With no smooth succession in sight for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, havoc appears likely, Chinese intellectuals say.
"There will be chaos, but it's hard to predict how great," says Jin Guantao, a well-known Chinese historian and editor of "Toward the Future," a controversial book series on China.
China does enjoy stabilizing factors absent in the former Soviet Union: a vibrant, free-market sector; a smaller ethnic population more closely assimilated with the 90 percent of Chinese who are Hans; and an ancient, visceral dread of chaos, or luan, itself.
"Historically, every 200 to 300 years Chinese society undergoes great chaos and it is always terrible. Chinese people are very afraid of this," says Mr. Jin, a visiting scholar at Chinese University in Hong Kong.
China's hard-line leaders, playing on this fear, assert that upholding Communist Party rule is the only way to keep China intact. Last week, Beijing blamed Mikhail Gorbachev's political liberalization for bringing "chaos, ethnic strife, and economic crisis" to the Soviet Union.
"If we waver from the guiding role of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong's thought... the Communist Party and state will be thrown into confusion," warned hard-line Vice President Wang Zhen on Dec. 24.
Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin forecast that if Chinese stick to "the basic party line," the "superiority of socialism" will manifest itself by the year 2000, the official People's Daily newspaper said last month.
But the propaganda has failed to convince not only ordinary Chinese but also many within the party's 50-million-strong ranks, including high officials, who are not so confident in the regime.
"A lot of cadres got shaken up by the Soviet change and have begun thinking of ways out," says a party source. "They have all sorts of ways," the source added.
Some Chinese officials are seeking security by depositing millions of dollars in foreign banks and sending children overseas to study, say party sources. Others, fearing acts of vengeance by opponents of the regime, generally distance themselves from Beijing's policies, they add.
"[The writer] obviously understands Chinese politics," says exiled dissident Su Xiaokang, scriptwriter of the banned 1988 Chinese TV series "River Elegy," who wrote the book's preface.
In "Yellow Peril," China's self-destruction begins in the not-too-distant future, when a power struggle among younger leaders breaks out after the demise of Mr. Deng and the "first generation" of revolutionary veterans.
The politically moderate party chief - who is reminiscent of Zhao Ziyang, the party leader ousted after the June 1989 crackdown on China's democracy movement - seeks to overturn Beijing's verdict on the so-called June 4th "counterrevolutionary rebellion."
But before he can act, he is assassinated by the scheming and ambitious young Lt. Gen. Wang Feng. General Wang, the son of one of China's 10 top veteran commanders, was not involved in the crackdown but wants to preserve the reputation of the People's Liberation Army.
Wang hustles 141 "cooperative" central committee members to Beijing to elect the malleable premier as new party secretary.
Next, Wang tries to rein in China's regions by orchestrating an overnight purge of provincial leaders. Beijing retracts powers delegated to the provinces during a decade of economic reform and attempts to cut off their life blood: private enterprise.
But rich coastal provinces like Fujian rebel. Fujian declares de facto independence under the late Mr. Deng's "one country, two systems" formula. Civil war breaks out. Taiwan orders its Army across the strait to aid fellow Fujianese. But Beijing forces Taiwan to retreat by dropping a nuclear bomb on the island.
After the United States and Soviet Union carry out a nuclear attack on China, a national safety expert and "green power" advocate named Shi Ge comes to power. Using a simple form of grass-roots democracy and a special breed of potato, he organizes millions of famished Chinese to migrate abroad, leaving hope for the survival of the nationality.
Several Chinese readers criticized this ending as too idealistic.