AN assertive, military-driven Chinese nationalism is gripping Beijing.
Many analysts had anticipated such hard-line patriotism to emerge after the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and splintering of a China lacking a strong rudder.
But as the nonagenarian Mr. Deng prepares to celebrate another birthday today, Western diplomats and analysts say China's senior leader is already on the political sidelines, and the succession crisis is pushing Beijing into a new anxious, jingoistic era.
To shore up its fragile political standing, Beijing's Communist Party leaders have launched two rounds of missiles tests to intimidate Taiwan, which it considers a rebel province; continued underground nuclear tests in defiance of an international moratorium; and pushed China's claim to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
They rail against Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui for undermining Chinese unity with his quest for more international standing, and challenge the United States for granting Mr. Lee an American visa and more recognition in June. Beijing and Washington are also at odds over China's detention of American-Chinese dissident Harry Wu.
''The military is in the driver's seat. No one leader has the stature of Deng and rapport with the Army to take charge. They [the military] get what they want,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing.
Deng, the architect of China's economic reforms since 1979, has pursued tight political control and fast economic growth while holding together competing factions within the Communist Party. His heir apparent, President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin, has moved this year to bolster his standing within the leadership, but long term he is expected to have trouble keeping the reins of power.
This spring, Mr. Jiang spearheaded an anticorruption campaign to boost the party's sagging reputation and remove some political enemies. Chen Xitong, the powerful party chief of Beijing, and other municipal officials were forced out in the process.
The Chinese president has also had to placate conservative critics of Deng's fast-paced economic reforms. Jiang signaled a slowing of reforms this summer and gave a strong vote of confidence to ailing state factories. This week, the official China News Agency in Hong Kong said an experiment to accelerate bankruptcies of state industries has been postponed due to fears of labor unrest.
Indeed, in the interest of social stability, Jiang has rejected privatization of state enterprises and called for the expansion of these factories and protection of jobs of state workers, a key constituency.
''Enterprises shouldn't simply push their people back into society,'' said Jiang in a recent speech.
''There are a lot of tensions because market-style reform is incomplete and political reform is nonexistent,'' says a European diplomat. ''Eventually, these tensions will threaten the party.''
But by moving toward the conservative front, the Chinese president and party leader risks having the mantle of economic reform preempted by party liberals and reformers. Of late, Chinese political observers have talked about an emerging alliance among Qiao Shi, a former secret police chief now regarded as a party moderate; ousted liberal party chief Zhao Ziyang; and Wan Li and Yang Shangkun, aging revolutionaries and powerful supporters of Deng.
Amid the party disarray, Jiang has given the military, the key kingmaker in the political transition, a free hand. Jiang also has invoked Chinese nationalism to bolster public tolerance of the government. Resurging economically and technologically after centuries of weakness, Beijing feels wrongly challenged by the US on human rights, defense, and trade and denied the respect it deserves.
In this climate, Jiang and other leaders fear appearing soft on what are regarded as issues of sovereignty and nationalism. They have backed military assertiveness in claiming disputed islands in the South China Sea and testing nuclear weapons. Both policies have alarmed Japan and China's other neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Beijing also appears determined to undermine the Taiwan government of Lee in the run-up to legislative and presidential elections next year. By conducting missile tests and unnerving the island, with which it has close trade and investment ties, the Chinese hope to influence the Taiwanese and swing popular opinion against the leader.
Lee, who enraged Beijing when he made a so-called private visit to the US for a college reunion this summer, is the front-running presidential candidate of the ruling Kuomintang party for the election scheduled for next March. The party is planning to meet this month to choose its standard-bearer.
''Beijing thinks it can influence businessmen and undermine Lee's support within the [Kuomintang],'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing.
''But this could backfire because the Taiwanese want more international standing and protection and a national identity separate from China.