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CHINA TRYING TO RECONCILE PAST, PRESENT

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At 19, Zhang Qiu is learning to work the angles in a China where it's tough these days to get a handle on things.

Zhang spends most of his afternoons in a computer lab at Bei-jing's University of International Business and Economics. The students' immediate goal is to figure out how their circa-1981 personal computers work. They run a game on them that is built around a warlord who strives to control all of China's 23 provinces, including Taiwan.But Zhang decides to cheat. He loads into the machine a pirated piece of U.S.-written software that lets him get at the digital guts of the game. Zhang then rigs it to give him enough loyal soldiers to ensure quick success.

Since Zhang is the son of a high-ranking Communist Party functionary, and since the elite business school takes in fewer than 1 in 10 of its qualified applicants, the true rigging, one suspects, may well have taken place earlier.

In any event, Zhang voices no interest in following in his father's footsteps. "I want to be a trader in Hong Kong or American company," he says in passable English. "I want get rich."

China's current communist masters see nothing wrong with that. Since the opening to the West under Deng Xiaoping in 1977, China's economy has grown at a phenomenal pace.

With the advent of so-called market socialism, that growth has averaged better than 10 percent a year, raising overall living standards and dotting China's major cities with dozens of new skyscrapers. Private industry now accounts for some three-fifths of China's gross domestic output.

Politically, however, it's a different tale: The communists still hold nearly all the high cards in the deck.

Thus, with the approach of the sixth anniversary of the Tian-anmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, they have seized more than a dozen leading dissidents. Among them was Huang Xiang, a scholar and one of 45 signatories of a recent and unprecedented petition that demanded the government free all those who were jailed in the aftermath of the 1989 demonstrations for having voiced their opinions.

None of this, to be sure, has appeared in China's tightly controlled press. But in an age of easy computer links, faxes and cheap short-wave radios, word gets back fast.

The true issue in this nation of 1.2 billion people is not whether this or that figure succeeds the 90-year-old Deng as China's supreme leader, but rather how much longer the system can survive, given its deep and abiding internal contradictions.

As one analyst, Robert Cottrell, puts it in The Economist: "Because the Communist Party will not tolerate free speech or a free press, or a political opposition . . . there can be none of the checks and balances that these things provide in more liberal societies."

If young Zhang does indeed enter China's vibrant private sector, he may learn a truth that isn't taught at his university: To retain power, the communists believe they must fund a big and grossly inefficient state sector. They expect foreign investors and the capitalist market to pick up the tab.