The restoration of capitalism in China has become a political issue in the Peking leadership debate. Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping, who is the main driving force behind the program to modernize China, has found it necessary to denounce the "absurd claim" that the country's modernization would lead to the restoration of capitalism. Teng attributed the claim to the radicals who were expelled from the leadership after the death of Mao. But a speech made by party chairman Hua Kuo-feng last month suggests that he, too, entertains misgivings about some of the modernization plans, and that Teng was really replying to him.

Both Hua and Teng uttered the ritual condemnations of the radical "Gang of Four" that are now an obligatory part of every speech made in China, but Hua managed to do so in a way that revived some of the radicals' charges against Teng. One of their strongest complaints was that Teng's call for trade and contracts with the West could lead to the capitalist enslavement of China. Teng used to argue back that without such trade and contracts, the modernization program stood little chance of success. Hua has now taken it upon himself to reply to Teng - without naming him, of course - in almost exactly the same words that were once used against Teng by the radicals.

Hua said that "we have always opposed the slavish philosophy that holds that anything foreign is good and that nothing Chinese is any good." He also echoed the radicals when he denounced those who "fancy that even the moon looks better over foreign lands, and that China can only creep along in the wake of other countries." Like the radicals, Hua was appealing to Chinese nationalist sentiment. "We Chinese have a head and a two hands just like the others," he insisted, "and are no more stupid than they are." But he was not saying that China should have no truck with the West, as the radicals used to say. He was all for learning from the West, so long as it was done "critically and analytically," but insisted that in doing so China must uphold its "independence and self-reliance."

Teng Hsiao-ping might have been replying directly to Hua when he said that, "of course," China must follow a policy of independence and self-reliance, "but independence does not mean shutting the door on the world, nor does self-reliance mean blind opposition to everything foreign." On the surface, the two appear to agree in stressing the need to learn from other countries, but the way in which they present their arguments suggests that Teng wants to go much further in opening China to the West, while Hua fears that too big an opening could endanger the communist system. Hua is all for modernization, too. But he implies that Teng the technocrat is so preoccupied with bringing about the rapid modernization of China, regardless of politics and ideology, that he poses a threat to the survival of socialism.

That threat is implicit not only in Teng's belief that China must acquire whatever it can from the West in technology and industrial know-how, but also in his other views. He believes, for instance, that the economy must be reformed so that it takes full account of the need for material incentives both for individual workers and for the factories. Undue stress on material incentives has always been regarded by communists as a deviation that could lead right back to capitalism. It has received its fullest expression in Tito's Yugoslavia - and Teng has recently sent a delegation to Belgrade to study the Yugoslav system.

It is against this background that one should read Hua's recent speech in which he insisted that "what we want is socialist modernization" and not the capitalist or the revisionist variety, which, he implied, was wanted by certain people in China. That led him to emphasize that "socialism is the only way out for China," almost as if he were replying to those whose proposals suggested some other way out. To achieve modernization it was necessary to continue the revolution, he said, and that meant "sticking to the socialist road." He insisted that "only by persevering in socialist revolution" could modernization be furthered.

Was that a simple statement of his socialist faith, or was it an attack on his revisionist colleagues in the leadership? The answer is provided by the People's Daily, which, in a commentary on Hua's speech, left no doubt of the alarm with which some members of the leadership viewed Teng's innovations. "We must cling to the socialist road," it said, for "going astray will spell the end of the party and state." The paper also revived the terminology once used by the Gang of Four to say that to go astray would reduce China "to a colony or semi-colony of the social-imperialists and imperialists."

While the Peking debate may be discerned only between the lines of the Chinese press, as was the debate between the left-wing radicals and the right-wing moderates before the death of Mao, the policies at issue now are as important as those in the earlier struggle. The defeat of the left extremists represented by the Gang of Four does not mean that the left as such no longer exists as a political force.

Hua is certainly to the left of Teng, and the debate between them is conducted in right-left terms. Teng knows that, at 74, he must win soon if his policies are to be established firmly enough to have a chance of outlasting him. If he does not prevail soon, the struggle may come out into the open, as it did after the death of Mao.