For China's leaders of the future, now in their twenties and thirties, there seem to be no Communist heroes left, at least no living ones.

The traumatic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 created a crisis of confidence in the Communist system from which many Chinese youths, particularly the university- educated elite, have yet to recover.

With Communist Party radicals in control, educated Chinese were among the Cultural Revolution's leading victims.

How the party now deals with a doubting, skeptical generation of university students -- some call it a wait-and-see generation -- is of vital importance. While small in numbers relative to the rest of the population, university students have played a leading role in critical periods of modern Chinese history, first in the struggle against the old imperial system and later in the fight against the Japanese invaders and the nationalist Chinese.

The economic reforms introduced over the past several years by China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, and his colleagues, require the talents of increasing numbers of university-trained technicians, engineers, lawyers, and economists, the very people who were prominent among the persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

When what are commonly referred to as the "10 catastrophic years" were over, even the revered late Chairman Mao Tse-tung could not escape the backlash. While recognizing Mao's achievements, the pragmatic leaders who subsequently took control of the party and government under Deng also acknowledged Mao's failings, thus reducing the godlike figure to human proportions.

The days when it looked as though millions of young people did nothing but shout Mao's praises and wave little red books containing his thoughts now seem like ancient history. The party can no longer demand blind obedience from many of its educated followers. A foreign university professor who has met a number of young party members says even they question many of the party's ways of doing things.

But with strong direction from Deng, the party has been trying for several years to recruit more educated young people to its ranks, counting on them to revitalize the nation's ruling organization. According to Chinese university students, the party is able to recruit some of the best and the brightest.

But it has had to work at the task.

"These days people respect knowledge more than party membership," said one recent university graduate, who argued that joining the party is no longer so important to getting ahead.

Other recent graduates and students contend, however, that it is still helpful, at least in their fields, to gain party membership. Many obviously still join to advance their careers. But in most cases, Communist ideology appears to have little to do with the decision.

"The stress on Communist Party ideals has no persuasive force anymore," said a student at a leading Peking university, who asked that his name not be disclosed.

The governor of one of the country's key provinces, Guangdong, recently acknowledged that "the ideological situation is confused."

"Some people are not very mature in their ideology," said the acting mayor in Shenyang, another major city in China's northeast.

A party that often used to get its way through a combination of intimidation, ideological persuasion, hero worship, and mass mobilization has had to rely increasingly in recent years on practical incentives.

The party can offer access to power and inside information. It can offer a patriot a chance to help build the country through Deng's economic reforms. It can help provide a promotion, a better job location, and even foreign travel. And if one attains high enough rank, it can mean a large apartment, hot running water, and the use of an automobile.

Most young Chinese married couples have to move in with parents and share rooms with siblings. Most have to do without hot baths unless they go to crowded bath houses. With few exceptions, they travel by bicycle or on buses, which seem more crowded each year.

The party, with the privileges that come with rank and membership, can offer a way out.

If an officially sponsored poll conducted in mid-1984 among students at more than 10 universities is any indication, the vast majority of students support the economic reforms advocated by Deng and his colleagues.

But interviews conducted by this correspondent with a number of university students in Peking indicate that some students remain uncertain about whether the leaders who succeed Deng will be able to persist in the reforms. Students seem to have considerable respect for Premier Zhao Ziyang and the technical expertise that he has acquired over the years.

But they view Deng and his colleagues as men who are subject to human frailties like everyone else, men who, in almost every case, have children who seem to have moved rapidly in their careers, partly perhaps because of talent and education, but also partly because of their fathers' influence and high position.

All of those students interviewed here seem to agree that some form of "socialism," or state ownership of most of the means of production, ought to prevail in China. But several of them said socialism also ought to allow for more individual initiative and more private ownership of some enterprises. That seems to be what the reformist group led by Deng is promising.

But these students seem convinced that a more cautious group within the leadership, represented by the elderly Chen Yun, 80, a member of the six-member ruling Politburo Standing Committee, would like to block, and perhaps reverse, the trend toward decentralized control of the economy.

One student said that what he would like to see is "socialism that allows more freedom."

He mentioned Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia during the short-lived "Prague Spring" of 1968 as examples of what he considered to be models to be admired.

Some students even quietly hint that they would like to see much greater political liberalization in China. One of them wondered whether economic reforms could succeed without it.

But few students would push that idea very far, because it could bring trouble from the authorities. In 1979-81, the government arrested a number of dissidents who questioned the established order.

This does not mean that many young people necessarily want to adopt wholesale from the West ideas about private ownership and unbridled competition. In the view of some of them, this would lead to unacceptable levels of unemployment and a lack of care for some members of society, such as the elderly.

But what most students seem to desire at the least is a greater diversity in the society as a whole -- political, economic, social, and cultural.

An article written earlier this year for the official People's Daily by Zhao Fusan, vice president of China's Academy of Social Sciences, seems to sum up the desire for greater diversity.

"China has been more or less a closed society for more than 3,000 years," wrote Zhao. "Now that the country is opening up, young people see a vast spectrum of new and colorful knowledge ranging from ancient times to the present and from China to the whole world."

But a university student interviewed here said while Zhao Fusan's image of a diversified, more eclectic society was to be desired, he was not as certain as Zhao that it is being acheived.

University students represent only a small part of the total population. According to the China Daily, an official English-language publication, only about 4 percent of the country's high school graduates go on to a university. According to one estimate, they constitute only about 1 percent of the total college-age population.

But some of the university students' skepticism and the doubts that they express seem to be mirrored in the society as a whole, both urban and rural.

In an interview, Liu Binjie, vice chief of the propaganda department of the Communist Youth League, acknowledged that the crisis of confidence had extended well beyond urban areas to the great majority of young people who live in the countryside.

"The young people sought practical results," said Liu. "The young people were interested in making money."

The youth league is an organization for persons aged 14 to 28. In some cases, the league serves as a training ground for the party.

It appears that the economic reforms that brought greater prosperity to the rural areas encouraged a "money first" mentality among a large number of rural youths. The reforms also shifted significant power out of the hands of the local Communist Party secretaries and into the hands of peasants.

A report published in the official China's Peasants' newspaper said that a township Communist Party committee was assuming functions that had little administrative and economic significance. These included managing a training school, public reading rooms, and entertainment centers for youth. The party in this township also was in charge of a courtesy campaign, cleaning and repairing sidewalks, and connecting wires for a public broadcasting system.

Economic authority in many rural areas has been delegated to teams and households and administration to the township government.

In September 1983, the official Bulletin of Rural Work quoted a Communist Party secretary on the recruiting problem: "In our village with a population of 3,300, not a single person has written an application for party membership in recent years. Many, whom the party branch committee has planned to recruit, refuse to write applications. The party branch committee went to talk to them, but they replied, 'It does not make any sense to join.' "

There is every indication that this situation persists in some rural areas today.

"The agrarian-based party that fought in the civil war, established the country, and ruled it for the first several decades is fading," said David L. Shambaugh, a University of Michigan expert on Chinese politics who recently completed two years of research work at the University of Peking. "An urban-based, intellectual, technocratic party is emerging that fits the pattern of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe," he said.

Shambaugh said that at Peking University, the party had succeeded in recruiting quite a number of outstanding students.

But outside Peking, intellectuals still encounter suspicion and hostility.

A circular issued last month by the police in Jiangsu Province in southern China urged local authorities to "make serious efforts to investigate and deal with criminal cases involving the insulting and beating up of teachers." Such beatings have been reported in other provinces as well.

In China, anyone with a secondary school edcuation, including a teacher, is considered an intellectual.

The Guangming Daily, an official newspaper intended for intellectuals, revealed in an article published last year that "some party members have misgivings about recruiting party members from intellectuals and worry that this will affect and change the nature of the party."

One male university student worried that if the best graduates failed to join the party, then less qualified persons would take their place. But he said the basic attitude of many students, whether they joined or not, was one of wait and see.

A woman university student who also has earned high marks in her field -- she asked that her field not be disclosed -- said that most students entered the party for selfish reasons: they want to be promoted and assigned to work units close to their homes. She said that she would not join the party because it would limit her freedom to speak her mind and would require her to attend too many meetings.

"I want to be able to maintain my small right to be able to doubt absolutely everything," she said.