BEIJING -- A scholar who recently visited the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was startled, then amused, by what he saw in a seminar room.

A Communist Party cadre was lecturing to Chinese intellectuals on a "very important speech" by General Secretary Jiang Zemin, but five or six in the group were sleeping. Two snored. Six or seven others read books or newspapers while the remainder slumped in their seats, visibly bored.

According to a number of Chinese scholars, future generations may well look back on this as a time in which some of China's best brains slept their way through an unpleasant experience, waiting quietly for a change in the country's leadership.

The academy has been China's major institution for research in the social sciences, and its scholars in the past often served as sources for party leaders in presenting new ideas to handle the nation's problems. Once the home of many of China's prominent theorists in social and political reform, the academy now appears to be under the control of ideological hard-liners.

But the Communist Party's year-old political indoctrination campaign appears to have failed to win hearts and minds at the academy or in other educational institutions. Scholars who last year were pro-democracy activists are remaining quiet, studying and thinking in preparation for the next stage in their now-silenced democracy movement.

"Intimidation and indoctrination can no longer change people's minds as in the past," said one middle-aged intellectual recently. "The past 10 years of opening to the outside world has made that impossible."

"People will find a way to express their feelings as long as there is any chance," he added. "This could be the most dangerous thing for the party leadership."

A similar situation exists at many other universities, where students who were active in the democracy movement last year say that planning -- not open dissent -- is the proper course for them to follow at the moment.

Students at Beijing University, which spearheaded last year's demands for democratic reforms, said they are now studying American political theories and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking" to prepare the way for a "restructured, liberalized China."

"Last year, many students were accused of being inexperienced and unaware of the realities of politics," said one student. "So we are now researching Western concepts of democracy and Soviet political reform to prepare a great new theory for the next stage of China's development."

But Gorbachev is no longer quite the hero among some Chinese intellectuals that he was a year ago. This is one reason why some scholars are now opting for reflection rather than action.

"We feel that Gorbachev has moved too quickly," said a young scholar at the Academy of Social Sciences. "The Soviet Union is in chaos. The economy is very weak."

"Perhaps democracy has to come more slowly in China," he said. "We still want democracy, but we think that people tried to move too quickly last year."

Hundreds of scholars at the academy, housed just east of Tiananmen Square in a 14-story building on Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace, were involved in the movement last year, marching in support of students calling for a more humane and just political system. Scholars even hung a banner from one of the academy's windows, demanding that the entire ruling Communist Party Politburo resign.

But the academy is paying a price for the involvement of its scholars in the movement, which was crushed by the Chinese army on the weekend of June 3-4, 1989. Shortly after the army crackdown, martial law troops searched and occupied the academy. More than a year later, party-directed investigations of suspected dissidents at the academy continue.

Yan Jiaqi, former head of the academy's Political Science Institute, was branded as a criminal and now lives in exile. Zhao Fusan, a respected former vice president of the academy, was condemned for making statements attacking the Communist Party and government and also lives abroad.

According to Chinese intellectuals, some institute directors at the academy are being required to give new testimony to interrogators regarding activities of employees during the movement. These ideological police, they said, are drawing up lists of academicians who are to be expelled from the party.

And two new vice presidents at the academy, who are described as ideological hard-liners, seem to be leading forces in the once venerable institution.

Despite the current subdued atmosphere in research institutes and on university campuses, many students said that the army crackdown on the demonstrators marked a turning point in Chinese history.

"Now is the darkest hour before the dawn of a new era in Chinese history," said one student at Beijing University. "But the democracy we fought for last year is a rising sun; no one can block it."

Some scholars -- they might be called the new optimists -- say that the hard-liners who now rule China eventually will lose power to a more liberal faction within the Communist Party.

They argue that they hold strength in reserve because party conservatives have failed so far to dismiss many of the country's top intellectuals from their jobs. While a number of university presidents and other intellectuals were ousted after the crushing of the student movement, some still run important educational and research institutions. Widespread passive resistance appears to have slowed down the purges.

The optimists base their hopes partly on the assumption that such leaders as Premier Li Peng and party chief Jiang are transitory figures, deriving their strength mostly from the backing of elderly leaders who are frail and expected to die or fade in influence within the next few years.

But not every intellectual agrees. Some are profoundly pessimistic, saying that the new optimism amounts to escapism or wishful thinking. They fear chaos when China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping, now 85, dies. As long as Deng exerts his influence, they see nothing but stalemate and stagnation. And, they argue, hard-liners within the military will play a decisive role in the power struggle expected to follow Deng's death.