Rarely has any politician had a chance to orchestrate so carefully promotions among those who will follow him. China's pragmatic leader, Deng Xiaoping, 81, is creating the framework for what he hopes will be the smoothest transfer of power in his country's often tumultuous postrevolutionary history.

In the process, Deng may be fundamentally transforming the ruling 40-million-member Chinese Communist Party.

Deng's efforts to promote technocrats rather than ideologues and to decentralize the Chinese economy seem to point toward a less intrusive, more relaxed Communist Party rule and toward diminishing the party's power over the long run. Although the efforts have not weakened the party's ability to crush its opponents, the moves could create contradictions and new turmoil down the road.

The new generation of Communist Party leaders, unlike most members of Deng's generation, will be primarily university-trained professionals. And while no one in the party will say so openly, they probably will be more focused on economic modernization than on ideology. Unlike the leaders who were molded in the tradition of the late chairman Mao Tse-tung to be "more red than expert," these new leaders will be "more expert than red."

This does not mean that Deng and his colleagues are abandoning Marxist ideology. But they do seem to have become less dogmatic. What counts for Deng in the end, it seems, is what might produce a better quality of life for his people. Economics, rather than politics, is what matters in Peking at the moment, and economic progress requires well-trained economists, engineers and factory managers.

If Deng has his way, political scientists say, the emergence of another figure like Mao and the radicalism he brought to China will be blocked by an ever stronger system of consultation among top leaders.

No one leader will hold a monopoly on power the way Mao did or even the way Deng sometimes appears to do, they say.

If all goes according to plan, China's new leaders will be not so much charismatic as they will be well-educated, well-organized and hard-working. They will, in short, be team players. Last of His Kind

Deng is preparing to be the last of his kind of leader.

And if western scholarly experts are correct, China may follow the pattern of the smoother, more routine leadership changes that have characterized some other maturing communist systems.

"Deng's lasting contribution to Chinese history may be to have promoted the evolution of his country from a young and volatile communist system to a more stable and institutionalized regime," wrote Harry Harding of The Brookings Institution in a paper to be published early next year.

In the end, some other experts suggest, Deng may also be planting the seeds of much greater change.

By giving greater scope to technocrats, factory managers, peasants and entrepreneurs, or those who create wealth for the society, rather than to the party ideologues, he may be transforming the Communist Party into something quite different from the Stalinist model.

Deng has stated that the change occurring in China through the economic reforms amounts to a "second revolution." Legitimacy Not Questioned

But for any Chinese to begin to talk openly about any fundamental change within the party or its relationship to the rest of society is risky; it could lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of the party's rule and its monopoly on political power.

Any Chinese analyst who advances too far with this theme might see a quick end to his career.

Deng has insisted in recent years that the essence of the ruling principles is to uphold the leadership of the Communist Party.

Not surprisingly, Chinese officials and theoreticians stick close to that line.

The inner workings of the Communist Party are largely kept secret.

Requests by this reporter to see two leading officials in the organization department of the party in connection with this series of articles were declined.

No matter how leaders at the top, including Deng, might want to bring change, the resistance to any change within the Communist Party and the sprawling Chinese bureaucracy is enormous, particularly as one moves out from Peking to the provinces, counties and countryside.

The national Communist Party headquarters, which is located near a lake in the Zhongnanhai part of Peking's old imperial Forbidden City, is not listed in the Peking public telephone book.

Some Chinese, perhaps mistrusting a questioning foreigner, profess not to know the location.

Given China's long history and tradition of following a single, strong leader, it is not certain that Deng's plan for collective leadership will hold in the long run.

Like everything else in China, much depends on the success or failure of Deng's economic reforms, which are now going through a difficult period that has been marked by excessively rapid industrial growth, a major corruption scandal and a sharp drop in the country's foreign exchange reserves.

At the same time, the successful implementation and continuation of the reforms requires a more competent and technologically oriented group of young leaders.

At the moment, Deng is trying to make certain that his chosen successors gain stronger positions in the country's ruling organization, the Communist Party.

By his own definition, Deng and other top leaders in their seventies or eighties are first-echelon officials. Officials in their sixties, such as Premier Zhao Ziyang and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, are considered the second echelon. When the Communist Party holds its congress in two years, Hu and Zhao are expected to be relieved of power by officials in their forties and fifties, known as the third echelon.

But Deng apparently cannot wait until 1987 to lay the groundwork for these promotions.

For the past year, Deng and his colleagues have been preparing for a special party conference to be convened here later this month. This meeting of approximately 1,000 delegates will appoint new members to the 210-member Central Committee. It is to be followed by a Central Committee meeting that is expected to appoint officials of the third echelon to the ruling Politburo and Secretariat.

Western diplomats say they expect to see up to nine new faces in the 24-member Politburo. Perhaps most prominent among them, diplomats say, will be Hu Qili, 56, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, scholarly looking advocate of China's open-door policy toward foreign trade and investment.

Hu Qili is clearly being cultivated to replace Hu Yaobang in the Communist Party's top job. He is currently the youngest full member of the party's eight-member Secretariat, the working arm of the Politburo, and serves as its permanent secretary or chief of staff. He acts, in effect, as deputy general secretary of the party and is Hu Yaobang's right-hand man. Role of Secretariat -------

The secretariat, headed by Hu Yaobang, directs the day-to-day work of the party and, together with the State Council, which operates like a Cabinet, makes most policy decisions. Deng Xiaoping and other other senior leaders have the last word, of course, and sometimes the first word on major decisions.

Hu Qili, who is not related to Hu Yaobang, differs in personality and style from many of the older leaders who now control China. He would be the first English-speaking Communist Party chief in the party's 64-year history. He would be the first not to have participated fully in the party's struggle to take power and the first not to have military experience.

His rise to power, should he make it to the top, would mark the passing of the Long March generation of Chinese leaders, those who made the historic 1934-35 march across China during the war against the Chinese Nationalists, or Kuomintang.

If Hu Qili becomes a member of the Politburo, as expected, he would be in a much stronger position to replace Hu Yaobang as the party's chief in 1987, when the latter has said he plans to step down.

But if history is any indication, transitions in communist systems, no matter how well-planned, often can go awry. That was certainly the case with the late chairman Mao's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, who lasted only a short time as the Communist Party's leader before his power was sharply eroded.

As head of the party, Hu Qili still would have to cope, even once Deng and Hu Yaobang were gone, with a number of experienced party leaders who seem to have doubts about how far and how fast China should be transformed economically and the degree to which Peking has now decentralized economic decision making. With no past service in the People's Liberation Army, Hu Qili could run into difficulties with influential Army leaders.

Deng Xiaoping still holds the chairmanship of the party's powerful Central Military Commission, apparently because he has been unable to turn that position over with any confidence to Hu Yaobang or to any other party leader without significant military credentials. The military is believed to harbor reservations about accepting such leadership despite the Marxist principle that the party "commands the gun."

In an interview with the Hong Kong magazine Pai Hsing in May, Hu Yaobang emphasized Deng's continuing importance with the military when he said that to get anything done with the Army, Hu and Premier Zhao have to say five sentences, while Deng achieves the same result with only one.

But the Communist Party of today engages in a much more orderly process of decision making than it once did. As A. Doak Barnett, professor of Chinese Studies at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, described in a recently published book, "The policy-making process is more systematic, regularized and rationalized than it has been for years."

Barnett quotes authoritative Chinese sources as saying the Politburo and its powerful six-member standing committee are no longer in charge of most day-to-day policy making, as western observers generally had assumed. Today the party's Secretariat, in which Hu Qili is so active, and the State Council's "inner cabinet," made up of Zhao, four vice premiers and 10 state councillors, are the key centers for policy-making.

Perhaps someday the changes that are occurring here will stand out as more sweeping than anyone realizes they are at the moment.

"I think the Deng revolution is far more fundamental perhaps than even Deng himself realizes," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of modern Chinese politics at Harvard University, speaking in an interview during a recent visit to Peking.

"He is altering the bases of political power . . . . He has jettisoned the idea of the supreme leader. He has tried to build a power balance both institutionally and among personalities."

The party is also changing in other ways.

It is a party that is more open in discussing its policy-making process, especially when it comes to informing foreign experts. But some Chinese complain that party leaders tell foreigners more than they do their own people and that the most important aspects of their leaders' lives and activities remain secret.

It is a party that, at the moment, is actively courting intellectuals and university graduates. But even at the end of 1984, according to the official party newspaper, People's Daily, only 4 percent of the party's 40 million members had a university education.

It is a party that speaks often these days about corruption among its cadres or leading officials, but that has punished few among the top ranks for such transgressions.

It is a party that seems to have little ideological appeal left for many of its best educated youths. One Chinese student from a leading university describes these youths as a wait-and-see generation. Others in China call them a doubting, or skeptical generation.

But the party also maintains some fundamental characteristics. It is very much a party of personal connections and factionalism; the Chinese system still relies more on relationships between people than on the rule of law.

It is also a party that faces the age-old problem of bringing into line millions of members in the provinces who have shown a great ability over the years to resist change.

It is a party that pretends ties between the top leaders and the "broad masses" are close but in reality secludes its leaders from the masses and provides those leaders and their sons and daughters with luxuries and special privileges that the average Chinese can only dream of. 'Rigid Thinking'

One small incident may show that it is not easy to bring a change in style, much less in substance, to the Chinese Communist Party. In the summer of 1982, when he was director of the general office of the party's Central Committee, Hu Qili liked to make informal visits to other party and government offices on his bicycle. This gave Hu a more natural and open style than his predecessor in the Maoist era, who moved about only in a heavily escorted automobile.

But, according to a knowledgeable Chinese, once Hu Qili became a full member of the Central Committee, as well as of the Secretariat, the party's security system prevailed. Henceforth, Hu Qili moved about only under the protection of bodyguards and security police.

Deng has railed repeatedly over the years against the "rigid way of thinking" of Chinese bureaucrats. If a strong leader such as Deng has had difficulty energizing party bureaucrats, one can imagine the trouble his successors might have.

Deng insists that the succession is proceeding smoothly and that party General Secretary Hu and Premier Zhao already are running the day-to-day affairs of the party and government.

"Right now, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang are doing the work instead of me," Deng told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in April 1984. "Even if heaven should fall, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang can support it."

But the big question that some people may begin asking at the upcoming special party conference is whether Hu Qili and other relatively young Chinese leaders have the strength to hold up the heavens once Deng passes from the scene.

NEXT: Grappling with bureaucracy