BEIJING -- With China's leader evidently too ill to influence events, there are hints that an official reassessment of the 1989 massacre of hundreds of anti-government protesters is now under way.
Until now, the government's position has been that the demonstrations near Beijing's Tiananmen Square were caused by troublemakers who had to be crushed so that China could remain stable and grow economically. The protesters were killed by the army on the orders of senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
But one of Mr. Deng's key supporters from that time, the head of the Beijing Communist Party, was stripped of his office last week on charges of corruption -- and criticized, albeit indirectly, for his role in crushing the Tiananmen protests.
A day after the firing, an editorial in the Beijing Daily, mouthpiece of the local party, praised the city government for its "great contribution" to stability in 1989 -- wording so strong that many readers saw it as irony: Here was fulsome praise for a party leader dismissed for corruption who had suppressed the 1989 protests, and yet the Tiananmen demonstrators had wanted to eliminate that very corruption.
One result of the firing is an unending flow of rumors that China's next generation of leaders will re-appraise the events of 1989, with the protesters exonerated as well-meaning patriots, the army excused on the grounds that it was just following orders and blame heaped on a few scapegoats -- such as the former party boss of Beijing, Chen Xitong.
If such a reassessment does take place, it would pave the way for a return to power of the hundreds of purged officials associated with the more open period of the late 1980s, bringing back to the government the sort of creative people needed to solve China's problems.
"Every new ruler has to separate himself from his predecessor," said the editor of one of China's current affairs magazines. "The current ones are going after Deng's main mistake: Tiananmen."
The new ruler appears to beJiang Zemin, China's president, commander-in-chief and general secretary of the Communist Party. Long believed to possess titles but no power, Mr. Jiang moved decisively against Mr. Chen and could establish his credentials as a independent leader by reversing the Tiananmen verdict.
Also involved in the political machinations was Qiao Shi, head of China's parliament, who had one of his allies installed as successor to Mr. Chen in Beijing.
One of the losers in this power struggle appears to be the prime minister, Li Peng, a hard-liner who strongly backed the use of military force in 1989. Mr. Li exposed his lack of influence by endorsing the work by Mr. Chen in Beijing -- and then seeing Mr. Chen dismissed.
"A new verdict on Tiananmen would hurt Li Peng, as if he weren't hurt enough by the Chen Xitong affair," an Asian diplomat said. "He seems to be more and more isolated."
Mr. Chen's fall and talk about reassessing Tiananmen are possible only because of Mr. Deng's faltering health and waning influence.
Mr. Chen, for example, was perhaps the most unpopular mayor of any major Chinese city. Residents resented him for approving huge development projects that displaced thousands from their homes with little compensation.
What kept him in place, many Chinese believe, was Mr. Deng's determination to back his Tiananmen ally and not lose face by seeing him forced out of office before his term expires in 1997.
"Chen Xitong was just like the Tiananmen massacre -- you couldn't challenge either one or say one was bad," said a political scientist at a university in Beijing. "If you did, you were challenging Deng -- and that was impossible."
Another example of Mr. Deng's vanishing influence has been the crackdown on corruption in Beijing's main steel factory, Shougang. Mr. Deng had touted Shougang as a model of how China's money-losing state-owned factories could be turned around, and a close friend was placed in charge of it. But in February, Mr. Deng's friend resigned and the friend's son was arrested on corruption charges -- a hitherto unthinkable affront to Mr. Deng.
Members of the Deng family could be targeted next, according to a Beijing government official. Members of the family are accused of having used Mr. Deng's status to enrich themselves. They could be forced to retire into private life.
The unending rumors about Mr. Deng's health add to the sense that the leadership is changing, and show that Mr. Deng's supporters are unable to control the flow of information. One minute, Mr. Deng is rumored dead, then healthy. Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian carefully said he had been "authorized" to say that Deng was healthy for a man 90 years old.