THE Communist Party gathers next week at a summit to shape a crucial transition for modern China.
The congress, the 14th since China's party was launched seven decades ago, is expected to enshrine the uneasy legacy of the phantom-like patriarch of Chinese politics, Deng Xiaoping.
Against the backdrop of a booming economy but continuing political shackles, disciples of Deng's economic reforms are expected to prevail slightly in a leadership shift over conservatives who worry that changes will undermine party control.
The congress' endorsement of economic opening caps months of party infighting during which Mr. Deng bested conservatives resurging after the June 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Still, in China's fluid high-stakes political world, no one expects the congress to be definitive, analysts say. Deng's successors anointed at two previous party meetings became expendable during later power struggles. Nor will the congress resolve the conflict inherent in Deng's policy of opening the economy wh ile keeping a tight grip on power.
"Here is the conflict of Deng. Deng is restricted by himself," says a Chinese political scientist who asked to remain anonymous. "If he doesn't promote economic reform, then what happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union will happen in China too.
"On the one hand, he wants to do something right for the people," he said. "But Deng is not able to face fundamental political change. He feels the need to keep tight control."
Indeed, if the party caucus crowns Deng's economic reform, it also sets China on a precarious new course toward struggle over political change and Deng's succession, analysts say.
In a world of few remaining communist players, China's rulers are in a scramble to hold legitimacy at home and abroad. The party is still reeling from the failed coup in 1990 which finally unraveled the Soviet Union and its communist rulers.
Still, except for Beijing's strained ties with the United States, China has rebuilt its international standing since its widely criticized 1989 crackdown.
Domestically, the party maintains a sophisticated mechanism of control, although increasingly, Beijing's leaders appear to be losing their grip as double-digit economic growth, regionalism, and a shift from farming to industry radically alter the country.
Everywhere, Chinese are in a race to get rich, no one more so than communist officials whose nepotism and corruption are eroding party authority.
"What worries intellectuals is the corruption," says a prominent Beijing journalist. "What we're worried about is if Deng becomes as muddle-headed as Mao [Zedong] did in his later years."
HAT mood of pell-mell change has also swept the congress, whose 2,000 delegates are, in effect, a rubber stamp for deals cut beforehand. During the week-long proceedings, delegates will approve a report setting the party line for the next five years and choose a new Central Committee.
The Central Committee then selects the Politburo, which, Western analysts say, is likely to be expanded from the present 14 members to more than 20 in a reflection of splintered factions within the party.
Unlike past meetings in which the new leaders were sometimes known weeks ahead of time, there is as yet no definitive lineup of China's next generation of leaders. Observers say the indecisive prelude mirrors intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Chinese and Western political observers point to several trends which, they say, will set a unique tone for this party caucus. Paralleling the party leadership shuffle will be a change in guard in the military and a beefed-up military presence in the party hierarchy. President Yang Shangkun, a Deng confidant and China's top soldier as chair of the Central Military Commission, is due to retire. He is expected to remain a kingmaker as the military braces for a potentially turbulent transition to the post-D eng era.
Although younger reformers and regional leaders are expected to surge to prominence in this congress, Chinese and Western observers say conservatives, including Premier Li Peng, who is widely blamed for engineering the 1989 crackdown, are not being sidelined. Mr. Li has changed his tune from criticizing to hailing Deng's economic reforms in recent months and could eventually be pushed aside when the National People's Congress, the parliament, meets next spring.
But Li's formidable power base, consolidated since 1989, or that of other conservatives should not be discounted in the coming months, say Western and Chinese analysts, who warn that economic change in China is still tenuous.
Even the language of the congress is aimed at pleasing everyone. The meeting will herald the launch of a "socialist market economy," which, as one Chinese economist explains, "means that anything that is practiced in capitalism can be practiced here without calling it capitalism."
"The headquarters of the command economy have not yet been turned into the headquarters of the market economy," says a Chinese scholar. "The reformers are not full-fledged, and the hard-liners remain strong in many government departments and provinces."