CLUSTERED in a small office crowded with desks, a half-dozen teachers mulled the imponderables of modern China.
"What is the difference between a capitalist market economy and a socialist market economy?" senior teacher Chen Wen read from a notebook. "The second question of discussion is `Why is the 14th Party Congress report referred to as the second Communist Manifesto?' "
Here at the Institute for Administrators' Education, the instructors had been summoned for the weekly political meeting which, across China, has served as a cornerstone of communist indoctrination and control.
What followed, however, was not an ideological drone but a freewheeling debate and gripe session mirroring the uncertainties of a country in flux.
"After Clinton takes over, US China policy will be more relaxed because his top priority is to stabilize the domestic economy. So he has to improve relations with China," Ms. Chen said.
"Jimmy Carter's aides and Henry Kissinger still control the China policy of the United States," retorted Tang Yijung, a younger staff member. "Therefore, there won't be any major change in the China policy of the Clinton administration."
For Chen Xinhua, the problem is rising crime: "China is now open, and for the criminals the country is also open to them."
"A major problem of China today is that education is lagging behind," another teacher said. "The kids don't know what is right or what is wrong."
One participant said he had asked a relative returning from Africa about the poverty there. He replied, "Only the Chinese there look miserable and shabby."
After decades touting Marxism, Chinese find themselves adrift. For years, Beijing's denounced foe was capitalism. Now its top goal is getting rich.
Prodded by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the ruling Communists are embracing the enemy, throwing the party into an ideological crisis and leaving many Chinese wondering where it all will lead.
"It's all very confusing," said Chen, the senior teacher. "We don't know what China will be 10 years from now." Delicate gains
Since the 14th Communist Party Congress in October, Deng has moved to clean out some nests of conservatism and solidify his gains in accelerating economic reform. Some hard-liners in key propaganda and ideology posts have been replaced by reformers in a power shuffle.
However, Deng's gains remain delicate, Chinese and foreign political observers say. In the wake of the congress, Chinese newspapers have been filled with tedious essays debating the pros and cons of the newly unveiled socialist market economy. Conservatives remain in influential posts.
"It is not easy for the Chinese Communist Party to adopt the term of market economy on its banner," says Sun Min, director of an automobile plant in Jiangxi Province and a delegate to the recent party congress. Mao's birthday
Next year, Deng's reformers face a sticky ideological dilemma with the centenary observance of the birth of Mao Zedong, the founding father of Chinese Marxism.
For months, China has been awash in Mao mania as portraits, calendars, and other memorabilia sell like hotcakes and many Chinese reach for a nostalgic anchor in today's uncertainty.
Yet the Liberation Daily, a Deng family mouthpiece, has urged that observances in Mao's hometown of Shaoshan be "very cautious and serious." The government has reportedly ordered that celebrations be scaled back.
"After all, we have to be on guard against the tendency of propagating Mao Zedong Thought to serve the purpose of negating Deng Xiaoping," said Gao Zhiyu, head of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism at the Beijing Party School, a prestigious training ground for young ideologues.
Following the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, indoctrination intensified among soldiers, intellectuals, workers, and students.
That ideological grip has started to loosen, however, as Chinese foresake philosophy for moneymaking. In some Beijing work units, the center of a Chinese resident's livelihood, political study sessions, which have been required since reform was launched in 1978, have been suspended.
True believers insist communist ideology and a mostly public-sector economy can survive even in a free market. Ms. Gao, the director of the Beijing Party School, insists that the party "is by no means in an ideological crisis.
"The 14th Party Congress demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party is further developing the essence of Marxism and combining its basic principles with contemporary practice."
Meanwhile, during political study at the Institute for Administrators' Education, the teachers debated and discussed murders, prostitution, drug use, AIDS, crime, traffic safety, self-employment, racketeering, and selling garments for profit.
Kai Tizhao, a young teacher of ideology at the institute, repeatedly tried to pull the discussion back to political philosophy, then gave up, shrugging.
"It is understandable if people in the West wonder if China is in a dilemma, not following the path of capitalism, not following the path of communism," said Ms. Kai, whose parents taught ideology before her.
"People are pragmatic. They don't care about `isms'. They care if the standard of living has improved and if there is peace and harmony," she says.