BEIJING -- Five days ago, top-level Chinese Communist Party leaders apparently gathered in the closed-off compound of a little-known hotel in western Beijing to begin long-anticipated deliberations on the course of China's economy into the next century.
The meeting -- officially the seventh plenary session of the party's 13th Central Committee -- has been dedicated to a task with which Chinese socialists have much experience: Drawing up the nation's next five-year plan and a strategic development plan for the next decade.
But the road leading to the dusty brown, 12-story relic known as the Jingxi Hotel has been littered with deep disagreements belying the party leadership's overriding emphasis on a unified face and forcing the plenum to be postponed several times this fall.
And it could be that within the Jingxi's corridors, the untidy arguments over China's troubled economy are continuing despite whatever had been previously scripted for the plenum -- paralyzing arguments between conservative socialists and economic reformers and between central government planners and independent-minded provincial leaders. Though the plenum may only be a paper exercise, at stake in the meeting are some tough, fundamental issues for China, including the rate at which market-oriented reforms will be introduced into its moribund planned economy and how tax revenue will be divided between fast-developing coastal provinces and the cash-strapped central government in Beijing.
Also at stake is the larger question of whether the patched-together regime currently at China's helm can actually provide some form of real leadership to the world's largest nation -- or whether that will have to await the outcome of the continuing struggle over who will succeed Deng Xiaoping, China's supposedly retired senior leader.
At the beginning of this month, Chinese Premier Li Peng gave some rough indications as to the overall shape of the five-year plan that he expected to be approved at the plenum.
He said that China would remain open to the outside world, that the projected annual growth rate of its economy would fall to about 6 percent and that the country's attempt to fuse market forces with a strong core of central planning would continue.
Next to nothing is known, however, about what has been happening within the plenum.
Rumors recently leaked to the Hong Kong press said it would end Thursday after three days. But so far not one word about the meeting has been uttered in China's state-run news media.
The only evidence that the conference apparently began Tuesday was the flotilla of special buses and luxury sedans with military license plates that turned up within the Jingxi's compound and the armed guards and plainclothesmen posted around the hotel's walls.
Yesterday afternoon, the vehicles and the guards were still there -- suggesting that the meeting was continuing to an unexpected length.
All this has raised the level of gossip within Beijing's diplomatic and foreign press communities to a new level of guessing.
Those who were expecting the plenum to have ended Thursday are raising the possibility that the factional disputes have stymied even a consensus, if only on paper, which would be a sure sign of the political weakness at China's center.
Even those unwilling to read too much into the situation believe that whatever plans evolve from the plenum will not reflect a firmly unified stance on China's economic future.
"Because of the evident splits between conservatives and reformers, they're going to produce some kind of cobbled-together document that cannot take the economy into any certain direction," a Western diplomat said here yesterday.
In line with maintaining that front, the party plenum also is unlikely to result in any major personnel changes in the central committee's leadership body, the Politboro, most analysts believe.