Forecasting the future of the world's most populous nation has long had its perils among China watchers. But on one point a consensus is emerging: Power in China is undergoing a sea change.
With supreme leader Deng Xiaoping virtually off the political stage and his successors consolidating power, control over China's dynamic economy and the ruling Communist Party has become more diffused. Some examples:
*Jiang Zemin, who as president, party chief, and head of the Central Military Commission, holds more top posts than did Mr. Deng, has nonetheless had to rely on building coalitions to govern.
"The current leaders believe that the nation needs a one-party state to constrain dissent," writes William Overholt, a Hong Kong banker and author of "China: The Next Economic Superpower." But "governance ... after Deng will be spread among many leaders, and their policies will depend more on broad support and the consensus of elites."
*Rich coastal provinces have taken or been given sweeping decisionmaking powers.
China's economic and territorial expansion will require a political structure to accommodate increasingly diverse social groups and national goals.
"Beijing has already created a de facto federal economic system," says Huang Yasheng, a fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs.
*Beijing's moves to grant Hong Kong broad autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula points toward the evolution of a Chinese political federation. This month's appointment of Hong Kong shipping tycoon Tung Chee Hwa as the post-colonial chief executive, rather than a party cadre, highlights this political shift.
The success of Hong Kong's reunification could portend the rise of "Greater China" as an economic superpower in the next half century.
These events and trends indicate China's economic and territorial expansion will require an evolving political structure to accommodate increasingly diverse social groups and national goals, say some analysts and Chinese officials.
Many of China's greatest challenges and successes as it faces the 21st century are direct legacies of the elderly Deng's rule.
When Deng gained power in the 1970s, he began dismantling Mao Zedong's centrally planned economy and devolving some powers to the provinces.
Deng's market reforms unleashed an unparalleled era of growth, with China's economy projected to become the world's largest within decades. But he resisted all proposals for reform in the political realm, and like Mao, maintained a tight fist over the party's rigid, Leninist structure.
Deng ruled by controlling the Army, the party, and the state and maintained an autocratic leadership style mirroring that of countless generations of emperors who preceded him.
None of his political heirs, however, carries Deng's prestige as a founder of the Communist dynasty. They will therefore find it much more difficult to fend off pressures to follow economic reform with political change.
Since being designated Deng's successor in 1989, Mr. Jiang has agreed to share power: Reformist Zhu Rongji oversees the economy while Qiao Shi, who has extensive contacts with both the liberal and conservative factions of the party, heads the National People's Congress, which has been called a rubber-stamp legislature.
Qiao has "a broader vision of the future than some of his colleagues," says Mr. Overholt, and has led calls that "the Congress be recognized as the ultimate source of authority."
Creating a 'new image'
One of the primary tasks of the post-Deng generation of rulers "is trying to create a new image for itself in the wake of Tiananmen," says Professor Huang.
Deng is widely believed to have given the order for the Army to retake Tiananmen Square from occupying student demonstrators in June 1989. But that decision caused deep fractures in the Army, party, and public.
The 1989 march on protesters around Tiananmen Square "destroyed the legitimacy of the People's Liberation Army and the party," says Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Although Jiang has never publicly denounced the use of troops to quell protests, he has partially defused the issue by removing many of the figures most closely associated with the crackdown.
Former Politburo member Chen Xitong, who as Beijing's mayor in 1989 co-signed a martial-law decree, has been stripped of all posts on graft charges.
Half-brothers Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing, both of whom helped coordinate Operation Tiananmen, have been replaced in the military high command.
While most scholars in the US condemn the 1989 crackdown, Overholt, who is managing director of Asian research at Banker's Trust in Hong Kong, says that Deng showed great foresight in guaranteeing political stability for his market-reform program. That decision may have saved China from a similar fate to that of the USSR. Unlike the Soviet Union, "China has carried out economic reforms before political change, which ... guards against disintegration," he says.
Deng's reforms also opened the floodgates to investment in the mainland by overseas Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Southern Guangdong Province, the most dynamic area of China, has in many ways become an economic colony of Hong Kong.
A similar pattern has emerged on China's eastern coast, in Fujian Province, where investments financed by tycoons in nearby Taiwan have fostered speedy growth and economic links despite political barriers between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing is attempting to rebuild its legitimacy by focusing on the economic union of the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and casting itself as a protector of traditional Chinese territories.
The state-controlled media have been giving wide coverage to the return of British-held Hong Kong in 1997 and ominously state the reunification with Taiwan is the Communist Party's next major goal.
Beijing terms the Taiwan question the "core issue" in Sino-American ties, and the deployment earlier this year of US aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait in a stand off with the Chinese military stoked the flames of nationalism in China.
"While the incident threatened to remilitarize the Taiwan issue, it also helped unite the Chinese people and the party against a common threat," says a senior Chinese official.
Although a handful of analysts warn of the possibility of an armed invasion of Taiwan, others foresee China developing its economic links with the island into a loose political confederation.
Some say that the success of Hong Kong's return under Deng's "one country, two systems" blueprint could induce Taiwan to peacefully rejoin the mainland. It could also persuade China's myriad ethnic groups to give up separatist struggles in favor of membership in a more flexible and responsive Greater China.