MIXED reports on the health of nonagenarian Deng Xiaoping has China watchers speculating widely on what will become of the world's most populated nation after he leaves the scene.
Many experts agree that in the short run the Asian giant will continue economic reforms and tight political control. But many also question Beijing's long-term central authority -- and the impact this will have on everything from social problems to foreign policy.
Winston Lord, United States assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, recently touched on an underlying problem that increasingly has the attention of China watchers here, both inside and outside the Clinton administration.
''There's no question,'' Mr. Lord said, ''that we are having some difficult problems in certain areas which may be partly related to the domestic political situation in China.''
Anticipating a transition
The ''situation'' in question is the transition China anticipates with the passing of its last major revolutionary leader. While Mr. Deng no longer holds any formal positions, his iron-clad authority has held potential succession squabbles under control.
Many Sinologists here expect China's immediate agenda to continue along current lines. ''As there is a broad consensus [within the Chinese leadership] in favor of a smooth transition, I would foresee a period of maybe three years in which there will be the normal process of political competition,'' says Ron Montaperto of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
But while the Chinese agenda may not change in the short term, the longer-term picture is murkier. ''China is up for grabs once Deng passes away,'' stated a group of China specialists in a recent report sponsored by the Department of Defense. ''There is no apparent internal balance of political forces, and Deng's death will create a political vacuum for both conservatives and reformers to move in.''
A remarkable leader
Deng's extraordinary stature has steadied a turbulent China more than once. Possessing renowned political and administrative skills, he helped stabilize it after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, only to be purged by Mao Zedong. After his rehabilitation, he successfully pushed China on to a course of dramatic economic modernization.
But Deng's concentrated power has also created the potential for considerable instability after his departure. His appointed successor, President and Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, is widely viewed as politically weak and too beholden to the military. Without the restraining influence of Deng's patronage, it is unclear how long Mr. Jiang's relatively unchallenged stature as ''first among equals'' will last.
Whoever succeeds Deng faces numerous social and economic problems -- and the lack of institutions to deal formally with them. As a result, says Thomas Christensen, professor of government at Cornell University, New York, ''Certain central policies that are crucial to economic and social stability will be harder to control. They [Beijing] will have a harder time doing things they already find difficult such as controlling inflation, guaranteeing a social safety net, and securing taxes for the central government.''
Many Sinologists predict that at minimum, China's response to such challenges may include a devolution of power from the center to the provinces.
The Pentagon's report -- the result of a study by a group of specialists -- created a buzz when it asserted that close to half of the participants thought that some sort of eventual disintegration, perhaps along the lines of a Soviet-style breakup, could occur in China. Other scenarios included a continuation of current trends or a move toward liberal reform.
But many in the group say the report, which caused ripples among both foreign investors and China watchers, misstated their assessment. ''Contrary to the written report, there was no consensus among the group that there was a 50-50 chance of a Soviet-style breakup,'' says Iain Johnston, assistant professor of government at Harvard University and a participant. And, he points out, ''just over half the people polled thought that something other than disintegration was more likely, namely the continuation of present trends or more dramatic political and economic reform.''
In fact, adds Mr. Christensen, also a participant, a Soviet-style breakup was considered the least likely outcome by most of the group, even among those who believed that power would devolve significantly from the center after Deng's death.
Whatever form a future China takes, inevitable changes on the domestic front may also play out internationally as leaders try to enhance their nationalist credentials. And for the US, this may spell a continuation of current rocky relations.
While President Clinton's decision last May to delink US concerns over human rights from China's trade privileges was supposed to smooth relations, the administration has had to look hard for signs of conciliatory gestures from Beijing. The State Department, in its annual report on human rights, gave China a poor grade. The US questions whether China will sign on to such things as a treaty banning nuclear tests, a ban on nuclear fissile-material production, and conventions placing strict ceilings on greenhouse gas emissions.
But, according to Mr. Lord, ''Our long-range goal of integrating China into the international community remains.''
Hot spots like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Spratly Islands could also provide the spark for diplomatic flare-ups between the US and China. In light of this, says Kenneth Lieberthal, professor of political science at the Univeristy of Michigan, Ann Arbor, ''the odds favor a China that is more prickly, more easily moving to a position of standing up for China's rights and prestige against US pressures to conform to our version of appropriate international behavior.''
But it may prove difficult for the administration to gain complete control, particularly of the Taiwan agenda. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, an outspoken supporter of the island nation, now heads the Senate Foreign Relations committee. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said last week he thought the US should promote a seat for Taiwan in the United Nations, something that China vehemently opposes.
But without dramatic jolts in certain key areas, Mr. Lieberthal says relations in the near future could resemble their current status. Both sides, he explains, could agree to disagree over Taiwan, without provoking any serious change in ties. Hong Kong's 1997 reversion to China could occur with relatively little drama. With these problems under control, and if China doesn't experience ''political meltdown,'' says Lieberthal, ''the relationship may look similar to now: full of irritation, not a whole lot of love lost, but wide-ranging, complex, and in the interests of both sides to maintain.''