BEIJING -- The senior leaders of the People's Republic of China are gathered this weekend at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, 180 miles east of Beijing, to set a course for the nation's economy, rule on points of ideology, and consider changes at the top level of leadership.

It is their annual summer retreat, and for the next several weeks, largely hidden from public view in villas and walled-in compounds, China's most important leaders will swim, relax and make decisions about public policy.

As the Chinese Communist Party prepares for a crucial party congress in October, one person who is certain to be the focus of attention at this year's meeting is Premier Zhao Ziyang, one of the strongest advocates of reforms designed to enliven the country's economy.

Zhao, 68, who is also acting party chief, is said to be certain to be named permanent party chief at the coming 13th party congress. Chinese sources say the country's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, is strongly backing Zhao.

But observers question whether others likely to be named to top leadership positions will work with Zhao or against him. They are also looking to see whether Zhao can impose his will on a 46 million-member party that is notorious for its resistance to change.

"Zhao is looking stronger, but we all wonder how strong he'll be once Deng Xiaoping is no longer there, standing behind him," said one Chinese journalist.

Diplomats say Zhao's weakness as party chief will be his lack of high-level experience in dealing with party infighting and ideology as well as his lack of a strong military background.

Zhao is known as a pragmatist who has little time for ideological sloganeering. But one western diplomat said Zhao has so far performed more deftly than many expected. He has shown that he can accommodate certain concerns of the more orthodox party elders while preserving the essentials of his economic programs, the diplomat said.

Zhao became acting party leader in January when General Secretary Hu Yaobang resigned following a series of student demonstrations for greater political freedom.

Over the past few weeks, Deng and Zhao have begun to assert control over party "preparatory" groups dealing with propaganda, ideology and personnel changes for the party congress, according to one usually well-informed Chinese.

Deng had earlier made concessions to conservative party veterans, handing them leadership of the party's propaganda department and of a preparatory group on personnel changes.

Now, while not dismissing anyone from such positions or dismantling the original preparatory group, Deng and Zhao have established additional, and possibly more powerful, groups to deal with the key issues of propaganda and personnel, the Chinese source said.

Hu Qili, a reformer and former protege of the ousted Hu Yaobang, has been named to head a five-member party group on ideology and propaganda, the source said. Two other members of the group were identified as "reformist" officials working closely with Zhao.

The creation of this group would appear to downgrade the position of Wang Renzhi, an ideological conservative who heads the party propaganda department.

Hu Qili's views were reflected in a major front-page commentary this week in Liberation Daily, a leading Shanghai newspaper, another Chinese source said.

According to the commentary, the dangers posed by student demonstrators and western "bourgeois" influences last winter have now subsided and the main danger to Deng's reforms comes from "leftist" interference.