BEIJING -- He presents China's most appealing face to the West these days, and so the indications last week that the mayor of Shanghai will be elevated to a national political post immediately led to a rash of speculation that reformist elements may be on the upswing here.
To add to the drama, some China watchers even proclaimed that the appointment of Zhu Rongji to a vice premiership -- expected to be ratified by China's rubber-stamp legislature early this week -- represents a behind-the-scenes last stand by senior leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure continuation of his economic reforms in the face of stiff resistance from hard-line conservatives.
Mr. Zhu's hard-charging efforts to revitalize China's largest city over the last two years and his recent overseas forays aimed at wooing foreign investors back to China have earned him rave reviews, including the stretched label of "China's Gorbachev."
In trips over the past year to Singapore, Hong Kong and America -- he is touring Europe right now -- the 63-year-old engineer has come across as a sharp, articulate and reasonable salesman, one of the few export-quality politicians that China can offer the world.
But, however attractive Mr. Zhu has been to overseas audiences and however pragmatic his attempts to reform Shanghai's stalled economy, there is little to suggest that his appointment will soon alter the conservative socialist strain in China's national economic policies.
And perhaps more fundamentally, there is nothing to indicate that Mr. Zhu, however personable, is interested in taking the risk of carrying the banner of domestic political reform, an issue that has been removed from public discourse here.
Adding to the difficulty in divining a distinctly reformist drift behind Mr. Zhu's appointment is the parallel nomination of the 65-year-old head of China's State Planning Commission, Zou Jiahua, to another vice premiership.
Though some reports say that Mr. Zou has pushed quietly for economic reforms, he is viewed here as a proponent of that mainstay of socialist economics, central planning and control.
Further compounding this political stew is the announcement Thursday that Ye Xuanping -- the strongly independent governor of China's richest, most freewheeling area, Guangdong Province will be brought to Beijing to assume a largely meaningless post as one of 28 vice chairmen of China's People's Political Consultative Conference, a mainly non-Communist advisory body.
In negotiations last fall leading to the drafting of China's new five-year economic plan, Mr. Ye reportedly led a revolt of the provinces against a drive by central planners to increase the central government's tax revenues at the provinces' expense. With his new central government position, it is believed he will have to give up his Guangdong job. Depending in part on the choice of his successor, this could mean he has been neutralized by central government conservatives.
Taken together, the three political moves represent -- rather than a reformist comeback -- a continuation of the debilitating standoff between reformists and conservatives at China's highest level of leadership, several Western diplomats said.
"You can construct all sorts of scenarios behind these appointments," one of the envoys said, "but the reality is that the ideological balance more or less seems to have been maintained.
"And there is no way you can see any great move to political democracy emerging from this. At best, what you have is the further pursuit of economic reforms at the expense of any political reform."
And bringing Mr. Zhu to Beijing from Shanghai may be intended as a public relations move to promote a more reformist impression of China externally, while firmly maintaining repression internally, diplomats said.
This has been the general strategy, pursued with success, by the Chinese leadership in the 22 months since the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing. But Mr. Zhu's appointment may be more specifically targeted at inducing the United States to renew China's most-favored-nation trade status this year, they said.
Though Mr. Zhu has proved himself adept at this sort of sales work, he has not been so successful in actually attracting foreign investment to his much-ballyhooed pet project, a largely undeveloped marsh in East Shanghai that China wants to turn into a high-tech industrial showcase.
And though, in contrast to Beijing leaders, he managed to break up pro-democracy protests in Shanghai in 1989 without resorting to military force, Mr. Zhu has invariably been careful to toe the central leadership's tough line on sensitive political issues -- a stance unlikely to change.