Peking is once again dropping dark hints about a military conspiracy that is supposedly working to wrest power from the present leadership. A recent Peking broadcast has raised the old issue of "who shall control the gun," insisting that the army must be under the party's "absolute" control. It spoke of conspirators who "always wanted to usurp military power" as a necessary preliminary to taking ove r"supreme party and state power," and it implied that that was what they were after now.

One example of military opposition to Peking was provided by the Liberation Army Daily, which let it be unederstood that military commanders were refusing the orders of the political leadership transferring them from one command to another. During previous struggles between the party and the military, Peking sought to weaken the power that the army leaders had long exercised over the areas they had controlled by transferring them to new posts.

"When a comrade is transferred," said the Liberation Army Daily at the beginning of last month, "there should be no room for bargaining." But the warning obviously had little effect, for a week later the paper returned to the charge with specific complaints that the refusal of unidentified commanders to act on Peking's orders was politically motivated. Followers of the "Gang of Four," the radicals who were defeated during the post-Mao power struggle, were "undermining our army's discipline." The paper made it clear that its strictures applied to "some leading cadres" who had "no sense of discipline or law at all."

Commanders who received transfer orders would retort, "If you want me to go, you will have to explain clearly what is wrong with me" -- which means that they took the orders to be politically motivated. They carried out such orders only if they "suite their wishes." If they didn't like an order, "they disobey it, saying that the question of right and wrong has not been clarified" -- thus making it double clear that political issues are involved. The paper indicated one such issue by drawing a distinction between local and national interests and complaining that those who refused to carry out orders had lost sight of "overall interests."

Some commanders outside Peking have been dismissed, among allegations of corruption and misuse of authority, but this was obviously intended as a warning to military leaders close to the top of the command structure. One article spoke explicitly of transfer orders being refused by "conrades" now serving in "such big cities as Peking and Shaai." There has been a good deal of speculation about the position of the commander of the Peking military district and a member of the ruling politiburo, Gen. Chen Hs*i-lien, who had strong links with the Gang of Four. He is closely associated with the mayor of Peking, Wu Te, another Politburo member, who has been repeatedly accused inwall posters of having worked for the Gang.

If the reference to commanders who refuse to give up their Peking posts is not aimed directly at Chen, it is certainly aimed at his subordinates -- and therefore indirectly at him as the man who is either unwilling or unable to enforce the orders of the political leadership. Indeed, one article speaks specifically of higher commanders who "dare not grasp the lower units and place them under theri control, but give them a free hand, and describe this as a policy of having faith in the masses."It was the Gang of Four who insisted that "faith in the masses" rather than blind obedience to authority should be the ruling principle of the "people's army."

Those military commanders who make an issue of it now may well be looking for excuses to justify their refusal to cary out the orders of the politicians. The military commander of Peking knows that if the command structure he has built up over the years by staffing all the key posts with his own men is allowed to disintegrate and new men ar brought in, his own power would be seriously weakened.

In a disctatorship, the man who controls the military units in and around the capital is usually one of the regime's key figures. Chen exercised that control while the Gang of Four was in power, but the key role in overthrowing the Gang was played by the security units under Gen. Wang Tung-hsing, not by the military. Chen has been a marked man ever since, but he has built up a position of such power in the Peking military district that he could not be easily budged.

The calls now resounding in the Chinese press for purging the Gang's followers in the army seek to suggest that those military men who "conspire" want power for power's sake, but there are obviously important policy issues at stake. The army commanders who are now being made to appear guilty through their supposed associations with the Gang of Four are unlikely to be anything as radical as the Gang was.

But the post-Mao regime has swung so far to the right from the policies advocated by Mao that important political elements in China are now challenging Peking's orders. Because the Chinese army has always been highly politicized, any such challenges on the civilian front would find a strong reflection in the army. Because the army's organizational structure cann make the military act independently of the party, opposition in the army poses a much greater threat to Peking -- even if the military do not now and never have.

But the military do not have to be politically united to make Peking think twice about the policies it wants to pursue. Opposition from even a section of the military would be sufficient -- and has indeed been sufficient on previous occasions -- to cause a change of direction in Peking. When the Peking press speaks of attempts by the military to usurp political power, it is really saying that they are trying to bring about some such change of direction back to some Mao's leftist policies, though not to the extreme left favored by the Gang of Four.