On a crisp spring morning recently, four eminent college professors completed their daily shadow-boxing exercises and began discussing the banned film "Unrequited Love" that intellectuals everywhere in China are debating.

As they strolled beneath drooping willow trees on the campus, Prof. Qian opined that while the film depicts the gloomy experience of most Chinese intellectuals, the screenplay writer still manages to avoid unpatriotic attacks against the motherland.

His three colleagues dissented in the finest Socratic fashion. The film, said one, suggests that China no longer deserves the loyalty of its battered artists and writers. It degrades the Communist Party, asserted another professor. It smears Mao Tsetung, argued the third.

Overwhelmed by their reasoning. Prof. Qian finally conceded. "The writer has indeed distorted the patriotic feeling of our intellectuals," he said. "Although our intellectuals have suffered, they never have lost their confidence in the glorious future of the motherland."

Although similar colloquies no doubt take place in centers of learning all over China today, the early-morning discussion of the four eminent professors was in fact invented by the party's theoretical journal Red Flag in its edition released today.

As a major article in the influential party organ, the fictitious debate provides the latest evidence of the actual sparring said to be occurring within the leadership over the issue of freedom of expression and dissent.

The same kind of high-level debates have come at critical points in the nation's past, preceding the two most devastating periods for Chinese intellectuals -- the anti-rightist campaign of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s.

This time, however, there is little to indicate that the debate will turn as ferociously against China's men of the letters and arts. Even the most conservative forces merely seek to discipline intellectuals at a time when social solidarity is considered a vital ingredient in efforts to improve the sagging economy, diplomatic sources said.

"How can we ask the people to look forward if writers write things that make people look backward at old problems?" asked a Chinese official in a recent interview.

While the issue of creative expression boldly resurfaced in January after the party issued strict new guidelines for writers and artists, most debate thus far has centered on the film "Unrequited Love," which spurred today's Red Flag article.

Never shown publicly, the film portrays the life of an artist who returns to China after the communist takeover because of love for his country. Back home, he suffers bitter persecution during the Cultural Revolution, raising questions about the system's fairness to him.

Last month, an unusually harsh attack in the Army's Liberation Daily criticized the screenplay writer, Bai Hua, for blackening the nation's image as well as the reputation of the party and socialism.

The following day, however, the party's newspaper People's Daily reprinted a speech by the top cultural policy maker, Zhou Yang, arguing against attacking intellectuals who produce misguided works. Instead, he recommended conciliation and reeducation.

Not long after the Zhou article, the widow of premier Chou En-lai, herself a Politburo member, wrote a letter to party leaders urging an end to criticism of Bai Hua and other writers, according to Chinese sources. She is said to have claimed that writers suffered enough during the Cultural Revolution and should be left alone.

With the nation's party and Army leaders openly disputing the limits of criticism for wayward intellectuals, students at the prestigious Peking University have put up wall posters demanding the public showing of "Unrequited Love" and a public debate on its merits and demands.

In its Red Flag article today, the party carefully sifted through the varying points of view on the controversial screenplay, using the fictitious debate as a vehicle for airing the issue publicly. Although the prevailing view was critical of the writer, he was not named nor was it especially harsh.