With their economic reforms bogged down on several fronts, China's leaders are calling for new ideas from the country's professors, writers and scientists and have been flooded with responses.
The ideas are less bold than those that poured out of the ill-fated democracy movement of 1978-80, but they may have a chance of lasting longer, western diplomats say.
As one diplomat describes it, there is now a wide range of "officially tolerated opinion" in China. "This isn't day one of a new world," he cautioned, but he added, "It involves a lot more openness than I would have expected a few months ago."
"If China is to modernize and be a great power, it's got to have intellectual ferment and change," another diplomat said. "They've got to loosen the bonds so that people can debate."
Other diplomats view what is being called the "new hundred flowers" movement as an attempt on the part of reform-minded leaders to use the intellectuals to fight some of their battles against conservative opponents of economic change. The new movement could be part of the preparation for a Communist Party Central Committee meeting in the fall that is expected to focus on ideology, some observers say.
Not everyone is applauding the new liberalization. As one Chinese intellectual put it, "People are still feeling their way. They're not completely sure yet."
In artistic fields, the situation is still ambiguous. "There are a lot of artists and writers out there who are still sitting on their hands," a diplomat said.
China went through an even broader ferment in 1956 during the government-encouraged "Hundred Flowers" movement. The movement was based on Mao Tse-tung's call to "Let a hundred flowers bloom together; let the hundred schools of thought contend." Intellectuals were encouraged to speak out. But once they had voiced their ideas -- and criticisms, some directly challenging the Communist Party -- they became the victims of an "anti-rightist campaign" that put tens of thousands into labor camps.
During the democracy movement of 1978-80, the critics, in some cases, once again confronted the party head-on, this time through wall posters and street debates. Some of the most prominent critics ended up serving lengthy prison terms.
Such direct confrontation is not emerging in the debates taking place now, and it is unlikely that the Communist Party will allow these debates to move very far into the sensitive area of politics. What is clear to most observers is that the party will not permit debate that endangers the party's dominant role.
Taking the lead in pushing the new liberalization are Hu Qili, a rising Politburo star who is expected at some point to take over leadership of the Communist Party, and Zhu Houze, the party propaganda chief, who replaced the conservative Deng Liqun about a year ago. Zhu has surprised some intellectuals with his calls for diversity and debate within the arts. Both Hu and Zhu are believed to be getting strong support from Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party's general secretary.
But given the history, when intellectuals have been penalized for sticking their necks out during periods of change, some intellectuals are less than enthusiastic about coming into the open now with their views. Some are arguing that guarantees of the freedom to debate new ideas must be written into new laws.
In theory, China's constitution allows Chinese citizens to express their opinions freely. But the constitution has never prevented the Communist Party from suppressing those whose opinion it felt it could not tolerate.
As a Chinese economist explained in a recent newspaper article, the suppression of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 "left scars in the academic world and created lingering fears."
It is in the field of economics that the most lively debate has been occurring in recent months. Li Yining, professor of economics at Peking University, for example, has been expressing unorthodox views that have drawn crowds of students to his lectures.
Li has called for a reform of the country's ownership system by setting up more enterprises controlled by stockholders. A student of several western economists, Li wants to push market-oriented reforms well beyond the current stage, and it appears from some of the articles appearing in the government-controlled press that other influential economists share some of his views.
In November, a young economist using the pen name Ma Ding published an article called "Ten Major Changes in China's Economics." Ma argued that Chinese economists should not ignore western economic theories and "must free themselves from Marxists' books, starting not from dogma but from living fact . . . . " Within weeks, Ma Ding, whose real name is Song Longxiang, came under heavy attack from ideologues who said that he was claiming Marx's "Das Kapital" was no longer relevant to China's needs.
But Ma survived the attack, and a number of economists came to his defense. The Workers' Daily and World Economic Herald newspapers defended him, and the "Ma Ding affair," as it became known, began to symbolize the need for more creative and independent thinking in economics.