A subtle but telling political sideshow was acted out amid the hoopla of China's recent Communist Party congress.
On the anniversary of Mao Tse-tung's death Sept. 9, the Chinese military launched a kind of commemorative candle -- the latest in a series of scientific Earth satellites.
The official media, which are controlled by strongman Deng Xiaoping, conspicuously ignored the sixth anniversary of Mao's passing, although it gave prominent coverage to the satellite.
In the ritualistic world of Chinese politics, the timing of the space shot by the military could have been no more coincidental than the Communist Party's neglecting Mao's death could have been accidental.
This little byplay is seen as an early sign of what is now known to be a serious rift between the Army and the party over Mao's legacy. Years from now, this period may be remembered as the moment of uneasy truce between Deng and the brass.
Few would disagree that Deng continues to dominate the political scene. At September's congress, he decisively shifted the party's ideological focus away from Maoist political activism to his own brand of scientific socialism. He managed to oust Mao's handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng, from top party ranks. He packed enough of his allies onto the Politburo to gain a clear majority of the ruling body for the first time.
Yet, recent events suggest that behind this patina of power Deng and his pragmatic rule have to fend off significant opposition from old-line military officers who still cherish Mao's memory and his commitment to "continuous revolution."
The military hard-liners are not believed to pose any organized threat to civilian rule in China. But they form a powerful pressure group with sufficient influence to have forced major compromises on Deng at the congress and to have preoccupied his inner circle since then, according to foreign analysts.
Once China's cynosure, the military has become a political stepchild since Deng assumed power in 1979. Top officers are known to have smoldered as Deng systematically removed the myths around Mao, slashed the defense budget, abolished certain military perquisites and pushed a new get-rich agricultural policy that has kept peasants on the farm instead of enlisting in the Army.
Frustration finally surfaced four days before the congress in what one diplomat termed "a rear-guard attack" on Deng's leadership.
Liberation Army Daily, which is believed to reflect the views of top generals, published an article Aug. 28 criticizing the Peking pragmatists for "lax and weak" ideological leadership and for ignoring Maoist precepts in favor of education, technical expertise and courtesy.
This lack of "ideological guidance," said the Army author, inspires dangerous "bourgeois liberalism."
Just how Deng reacted at the time is unknown, although knowledgeable Chinese sources believe the article was seen as a clear challenge aimed at discrediting his school of flexible socialism on the eve on an important party meeting.
More than a month later, the opposition seems to have beaten a retreat.
Top Army Political Commissar Wei Guoqing, a staunchly conservative general whose deputy runs the newspaper, has been replaced by a less doctrinaire general and economist, Yu Qiuli.
Liberation Army Daily has twice recanted, calling the Aug. 28 article "not only serious carelessness but dereliction of duty and a grave political and organizational mistake" that proves the lasting power of "pernicious influence of leftist ideas" among some military officers.
"It is extremely important for the Army to obey the party's absolute leadership," the newspaper stressed.
While Deng seems to have tamed his radical rivals, it was not before backpedaling some distance at last month's congress, according to diplomats.
The congress had been billed as Deng's crowning moment when he would demonstrate such mastery of China's political process that he could withdraw into an advisory role, taking his foes with him as he handed over power to carefully groomed successors.
The congress turned out to be more of a split decision than a Dengist romp. He elevated key supporters and had the party endorse his programs, but Deng was forced to sacrifice important organizational goals of professionalizing the party's top ranks and sidelining aged, Maoist hard-liners in the Army and party.
Instead of making room for a new breed of technocrats, the old generals who have been running the party since the 1930s hung on to power, and the military as a whole increased its representation in leadership posts.
The Politburo looks like a reunion of Army veterans from the historic long march of 1934-35. No less than 12 of its 28 members actually participated in the guerrilla-war retreat, including three marshals in their eighties.
One of the marshals -- Ye Jianying, 85 -- is thought to be the lightning rod for Maoist loyalists in the Army.
The addition of two active generals -- Army Chief of General Staff Yang Dezhi, 72, and Peking regional military commander Qin Jiwei, 72 -- gives the Politburo 10 soldiers on active duty, the largest number since the Communists came to power in China in 1949.
Gen. Yang Yong, 76, deputy chief of staff, was elevated to the Secretariat, which handles the Politburo's daily affairs.
The military leaders' presence along with about 50 officers who were elected to the 210-member Central Committee--where the Army is the dominant professional bloc -- assures the military of an unexpectedly strong voice in national affairs for years to come.
"We've been hearing all along that the military leaders should draw back from decision-making and concentrate on military concerns while civilians run the bureaucracy," observed a Western diplomat. "This kind of upsets the plan."
While many military officers are known to support at least some of Deng's programs, they represent bureaucratic interests and an orthodox Maoist philosophy at odds with most of Deng's reforms.
Nevertheless, Deng, an old Army political commissar who technically retains control of the military as head of its ruling commission, has continued to appease military interests to assure the stability he considers vital to his economic modernization goals, according to diplomats.
Far from retiring himself, Deng heads the new advisory panel while retaining his seat on the Politburo's select, six-member Standing Committee and his chairmanship of the five-member Military Commission.
Keeping the military in check requires certain compromises but relatively little real difficulty for Deng, who commands respect as a Long March warrior and knows the generals well after decades of debates over China's future.
Preoccupied with his own succession, Deng, 78, seems to be able to keep his old Army adversaries at bay while his handpicked heirs -- Premier Zhao Ziyang and Secretary General Hu Yaobang -- get the seasoning to control the brass themselves.
The question is whether the fragile peace maintained by Deng and the generals will outlast the players.