With 40 million members, the Communist Party of China is by far the largest communist party in the world, more than double the size of its counterpart in the Soviet Union. The party, in effect, directs a bureaucracy the size of many armies.

But when the going gets rough, the tendency of lower level bureaucrats has been to shirk responsibility and turn to leaders such as Li Changchun to make the hard decisions.

Li, the Communist Party chief in one of China's most important cities, works long hours each day and often into the weekends. The university-educated Li, 41, represents the new type of leader whom China's top leadership in Peking is trying to promote.

Shenyang is not an easy place to govern. China's northern heavy industrial center, it is a grim, overcrowded city full of smokestacks. Perhaps because of the harsh climate, the people, who are known to be hard-working, do not take easily to changes proposed by Peking. The idea of giving up a guaranteed subsistence system of wages for one based more on profit, incentives and productivity, for example, does not appeal to everyone.

It is only here, at the province level, that one begins to feel the resistance to change that has characterized life in China for so many centuries. Deng Xiaoping may have considerable power, and local party secretary Li Changchun may be considered a powerful man, but for most Chinese, the Communist Party official who really counts is someone at a much lower level, someone who is capable, through inaction or subtle subversion, of destroying policies contrived in Peking.

Despite their image as government officials in the forefront of the country's economic reforms, the administrators of Shenyang face some of the same problems that traditionally have plagued Chinese governments, both Communist and non-Communist. Resistance to change is one. Another is corruption, which seems to be less pervasive here than in the south but which is nevertheless a problem, as officials take advantage of the liberal economic atmosphere created by the current reforms to open illegal businesses.

With no assets other than their briefcases, in other words, their connections and influence, these cadres have opened up "briefcase companies" that have interfered with legitimate reform, officials say.

In an interview, Li denied that corruption is a major problem among Communist Party cadres in Shenyang. But he listed a number of "unhealthy tendencies" that the local party organization had to combat at the end of last year. These covered a fairly wide range of activities similar to those that seem to be in evidence elsewhere in the country.

In addition to those cadres who illegally opened private businesses, Li said some other cadres had engaged in "bureaucratism." In the Chinese context, this usually refers to negligence or inefficiency that has resulted in financial loss for the state. Two had been ousted from their positions last year, he said, for causing "great losses to the state." The party chief did not elaborate.

The Communist Party deals with corruption and less serious "unhealthy tendencies" in Shenyang as it does elsewhere in the country -- for the most part, through its own disciplinary measures. The party does have an internal commission enforce discipline, but in most cases, it is not accountable to other institutions.

Since the beginning of a major nationwide party "rectification" drive in 1983, some cadres who had "committed some mistakes" had made self-criticisms and corrected themselves, Li said. He listed the illegal price increases and unwarranted bonuses of the "briefcase companies" as one example.

But the rectification campaign, which at first looked as though it was going to be a purge, has turned out to be more of a mild exercise in bringing party cadres into line behind the reform program.

Some critics have accused the party, meanwhile, of ignoring major perpetrators of corruption if they happen to be sons or daughters of well-placed cadres or if they belong to the old-boy network of senior cadres.

The publisher of the Hong Kong magazine Pai Hsing, interviewing party General Secretary Hu Yaobang this spring, he asked about corruption. Hu said that since the party began to crack down on economic and other types of crime, 20,000 or 30,000 party members had been dealt with by criminal law or party discipline and that the grandson of Zhu De, perhaps China's most illustrious general, had been executed after being convicted of rape and other crimes.

But, the publisher wanted to know, "What major cases have you had recently? It is commonly said that you people catch only flies, not tigers."

In response, Hu mentioned the director of the Bank of China who had been removed from his job recently in connection with the excessive issuing of bonds and drop in the foreign exchange reserve and said the top party authorities had discussed a decision to ban sons of high-ranking cadres from engaging in business enterprises.

But with all the efforts, the party seems to have been easy on its own people. And the rectification campaign does not seem to have done much to resolve corruption, judging by the cases that continue to be exposed selectively in the Chinese press.

Some foreign observers, including diplomats, argue that corruption is still a much less serious problem here than it is in some other parts of Asia. They say that some of it is a result of an irrational price structure and rules and regulations that have lagged behind the other parts of the economic changes.

But some observers, including a few western businessmen, say that unless it is better controlled, corruption will do great harm to the country's economic reforms. The problem is widespread enough to damage the Communist Party's image at the very time when the party is attempting to recruit young intellectuals and university students, some of whom have grown cynical about the party and its claims to moral superiority.

In Shenyang, the party has shown that it is capable of ousting members on occasion, and the party's image may be more positive than it is in some other cities.

Last month, The People's Daily revealed that the provincial authorities based in Shenyang had fired and expelled the party secretary of a highway engineering department. He was accused of masterminding a scandal involving the embezzlement of $75,860 to be used in the construction of a highway between Shenyang and the port city of Dalian.

The party secretary in question, Li Wancheng, had organized an "illicit contracting team," taken a cut from a loan given to him by construction bank, spent money lavishly on gifts and dinners for other officials, and paid off 28 city officials. To cover up, Li told his superiors that the money was being paid to the officials as bonuses for money saved in the construction job. Five other cadres were punished or fired as a result of the scandal.

Li Changchun became Shenyang's Communist Party chief in April, heading a new party committee whose 13 other members average 47 years in age. Most of the committee members have college-level educations.

The new appointments were part of a nationwide series of promotions aimed at bringing younger, better educated officials into leadership positions. The aim was to retire enough older leading officials, both in Peking and the provinces, so that 70 percent of such officials were under 60.

Yesterday, the official New China News Agency announced that China had completed that process in the provinces.

There are 26 new faces among governors and provincial party secretaries, the agency said, as a result of what it called a now completed "readjustment of leading bodies." About 60 percent of the new top officials have college educations, compared with an earlier level of 43 percent, the agency said.

In a separate report yesterday, the agency said that the Communist Party has placed nearly 1,000 "talented young cadres" on a short list for senior government posts during the past two years.

According to Li, the Communist Party headquarters in Shenyang uses an Apple computer to keep track of proposed candidates for party and government jobs. The party is experimenting with new methods of selecting such candidates.

The fact that party chief Li will discuss this, along with other more sensitive issues, represents something new. A few years ago, party secretaries were not in the habit of talking with foreign reporters. Top Communist Party officials in Peking recently declined to be interviewed for this series of articles.

In keeping with its more modern image, the party in Shenyang is encouraging people outside the party to propose their own candidates for city jobs. Personnel departments in various units were asked to submit names for consideration. At the same time, Shenyang advertised for qualified personnel in local newspapers. Applicants were given a basic knowledge test and a test in their own specialties. The city then named 44 young leaders to top city jobs.

Outlook, China's official national weekly magazine, praised the city for this effort. In the past, Outlook said, many city government bureau chiefs and department heads rose to their positions simply because they were next in line. The magazine also might have added that promotions came to individuals who were well connected to high-ranking officials.

In the past, the magazine said, city party chiefs, whose job it is to select leaders, nominated these people for jobs not because of their competence but because of their political reliability and willingness to obey instructions.

None of the experimentation with recruiting in Shenyang means that the Communist Party is deliberately loosening its grip on power, either in Shenyang or elsewhere. The party's power to make appointments or influence them are the last powers that would ever be relinquished.

But the party does seem willing to experiment more in matters such as recruiting for jobs to produce more effective government, gain greater participation by talented people who might otherwise end up being opponents and restore the party's prestige.

That prestige was damaged gravely during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, particularly in the late 1960s, when the party split into openly hostile factions and millions suffered as a result of leftist policies.

During the Cultural Revolution, radical Maoists attacked, both verbally and physically, those who were considered to be from the wrong social classes. Gun battles erupted in the streets of Shenyang.

In Shenyang's Zhongshan Square, a huge statue of the late chairman Mao Tse-tung reminds one of the Cultural Revolution days. Mao is flanked by statues of peasants, workers and soldiers, but none of the university-educated intellectuals whom the party is now trying so eagerly to recruit.

But the message now from those currently in control in China is that everyone should pull together and that "class background" and "class struggle" are no longer relevant to the situation. The career of Li Changchun reflects that change in the political atmosphere.

Trained as an electrical engineer at the prestigious University of Engineering in Harbin, Li was reduced in status from technician to worker during the Cultural Revolution and forced to work in the factory as a welder.

"Intellectuals were targets of persecution," he said. "Your knowledge was considered to be worth nothing."

Li Changchun's "class background" hurt him in those years. He said that his father had worked as a staff member in a business under the "old society" that existed prior to the Communist takeover.

"Today we give priority to the personal qualities of an individual and not his class background," said Li. "Class background does not really hinder a person in getting an appointment to a position."

Two years ago, at 39, the round-faced, heavy-set Li was appointed mayor of Shenyang, a city with an urban population of more than 3 million. This year, at 41, he moved on to become Communist Party secretary for the city. In a nation where most provincial leaders are in their fifties, that is rapid progress.

According to city officials, the energetic Li works long hours each day and often into the weekend. But in addition to his obvious technical qualifications, he also seems to be well-connected politically. In an interview with a Hong Kong publisher late last year, party General Secretary Hu Yaobang singled out Li along with a handful of other young leaders for special mention.

Hu referred to Li as the university classmate of Wang Zhaoguo, one of the party's rising young stars who now serves as director of the general office of the party's Central Committee and a possible contender, according to some observers, to become one of the youngest members of the Politburo.

Last month, Li showed up in North Korea, leading a provincial Communist Party delegation. In addition to being a city secretary, Li is a deputy secretary of the Liaoning Province Communist Party Committee.