BEIJING -- Deng Nan is a physicist by training, but if a complete resume were ever made public, it would show that she also has helped woo Taiwanese business executives to invest on the Chinese mainland and has advised her father on politics.

Her father is senior leader Deng Xiaoping, the most powerful man in China.

In a country where politics has always been a family affair, the younger Deng's roles are nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, she is among a group of sons and daughters of China's revolutionaries that is taking a higher political profile as China moves into the 1990s.

Known as the "princelings" or "princesses" because of their privileged backgrounds, this younger generation is well-educated and cosmopolitan. They have traveled abroad, often attended the same elite schools, and in some cases, intermarried.

Through their fathers, they have close ties to other leaders. But perhaps most important, in a country where information is the most treasured commodity, they have access to tightly held secrets within leadership circles. That, said one Western diplomat, "is like inheriting money in the West."

At a time when the Chinese Communist Party is struggling to maintain legitimacy, its leaders are turning to members of this younger generation -- in their late thirties to mid-forties -- to assume greater political responsibility, Chinese and Western analysts said. If the current regime survives the death of senior leader Deng, who turns 88 this summer, and the power structure remains intact, these individuals are likely to be key players in the next generation of leadership.

Many of these younger people assumed central and provincial government and party positions in the 1980s, when Deng began promoting younger technocrats to replace party elders and to carry out his policies opening China to the outside world and reforming the economic system.

But the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the subsequent collapse of communism elsewhere in the world have raised the stakes in China's leadership succession. Party elders, including senior leader Deng, are reported to believe that perhaps the most dependable successors after all are their own flesh and blood.

"There is a fear that they might inadvertently promote another Gorbachev," said Murray Scot Tanner, a Western Michigan University professor who recently completed a study on family politics in China. "The only way to stop that would be to choose someone with unquestioned reliability, and who better than your own children?"

"The clannishness of traditional China is bubbling up from the Communist system," said Andrew Nathan, a China scholar at Columbia University. "It bespeaks the fact that the present elite feels under siege that they are falling back on relatives, people you can trust."

Nobody knows what members of this younger generation would do if they came to power, and it is not likely that they all agree with each other on the best path for China -- or anything else. In fact, it is not believed that these people even see themselves as part of one group.

A Pragmatic View

But, analysts said, many of them have a more pragmatic, less ideological outlook on the world than their parents, as a result of being persecuted during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and becoming beneficiaries of the sweeping reforms of the 1980s. If they rise to positions of greater power, they are likely to support a greater degree of economic and political reform than the current regime, the analysts said.

Nevertheless, because the privileges of the princelings come from their elite status within the party, they are likely to support continued dominance of the Communist Party and the socialist system. "They must completely rely on the party structure," said one Chinese intellectual. "In politics, it would not be in their interest to have major changes. It would directly affect their ability to survive."

Despite the strong anti-nepotism sentiment that underscored the democracy movement 2 1/2 years ago, some members of this elite younger generation are expected to be promoted, perhaps to the party's powerful Central Committee, during a watershed party congress late this year, Chinese and Western sources said. Membership in the Central Committee is considered a crucial stepping stone to greater political prominence.

The family lineage of the ones most likely to be elevated reads like a Who's Who of China's ruling elite. In addition to Deng Nan, who is in her mid-forties and was recently elevated to vice minister of the powerful State Science and Technology Commission, the group includes:

Chen Yuan, 46, vice governor of the People's Bank of China and son of Chen Yun, the ailing conservative patriarch who is among the most important of the "Eight Elders" in China's leadership.

Bo Xilai, executive vice mayor of the northeastern port city of Dalian, and Bo Xicheng, director of the Beijing Tourism Administration, both in their forties and both sons of Bo Yibo, another one of the Eight Elders.

Liu Yuan, 40, vice governor of Henan province, and son of China's former president, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong's heir-apparent who was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution and has since been rehabilitated.

Xi Jinping, 39, party secretary of the southern city of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, son of veteran party leader Xi Zhongxun.

Within that sector of industry that serves the military, at least two others are often considered likely candidates for promotion:

He Ping, deputy director of the Armaments Department, the office of the People's Liberation Army that is most directly involved in procuring and trading arms. He is married to Deng Rong, Deng Xiaoping's youngest daughter and currently his personal assistant. He Ping used to be a key executive of Poly Technologies, one of China's most active arms dealers.

He Pengfei, He Ping's boss at the Armaments Department and son of a famous Chinese marshal. He was the first head of Poly Technologies.

"These are the people who will be running the country," said one Western diplomat. "They'll be easier for Americans to do business with. They will have connections with the people who are running it now, barring a revolution."

The U.S. government maintains several lists on the family lineage of top Chinese leaders, although it will not release the names. It keeps track of the scores of children and other relatives who have studied, or are currently studying, in the United States. Some of the most hard-line ideologues, who accuse the United States of spearheading a conspiracy to undermine China's socialist system through a process of "peaceful evolution," have sent their children to study in America.

Little is known about the princelings, even in China. For example, unlike their prominent fathers, their speeches are not published in official newspapers. Officials in China go to great lengths to keep their personal lives secret, so few outside certain circles even know of their pedigrees. References to Chinese leaders seldom include information about their families; the Chinese Foreign Ministry, for example, only disclosed in March 1984, after a request by a Western news agency, that Deng had five children, two sons and three daughters.

Some of the princelings, such as Deng's eldest son, Deng Pufang; the four sons of disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang; and two sons of China's hard-line vice president, Wang Zhen, have gained a reputation for abusing power for personal gain in their business dealings.

But in general, Chinese and foreigners who have met members of this younger generation say they have been favorably impressed, and Chinese sources said that those who chose to enter politics instead of business have a better image with the Chinese public. In many cases, they started by working at local levels in the provinces, instead of staying in Beijing.

'Sons and Daughters of the Revolution'

As in ancient China, when the fortunes of a family rose or fell depending on the position of the sovereign, many of these "sons and daughters of the revolution" were persecuted during the disastrous Cultural Revolution of for the so-called crimes of their fathers. As a result of this experience, they are generally thought to have a more pragmatic outlook.

One such example appears to be banker Chen Yuan, the son of China's leading conservative economist, 86-year-old Chen Yun. The elder Chen favors central planning over market forces. Even though he has been in bad health for several years and has not been seen in public in almost a year, he is reported to wield enormous influence behind the scenes.

Chen Yuan, who has attended World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings all over the world, is regarded as more of a moderate than his father, according to foreigners who have met him. He has spoken of the need to develop China's capital markets and to experiment more with share-holding.

The father's views "color what we hear" in meetings with the younger Chen, said one Western business executive who has met him several times over the past year, "but we don't see any of that {conservative philosophy} coming back at us."

The younger Chen is a graduate of Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University, China's equivalent of MIT. As vice governor of the People's Bank of China, his portfolio includes external affairs and computer applications. In meetings with foreigners, he prefers to speak English.

When the subject of computers arose during a meeting last fall with some Western business executives, "he just took off with it, going on and on about how to secure the system for financial transactions," recalled the executive.

Another princeling seen as promising is Bo Xilai, the executive vice mayor of Dalian, capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning. One of party elder Bo Yibo's seven children, Bo Xilai has visited the United States at least once and has acquired a taste for American sweet corn. Reported to be a gregarious and dynamic public speaker, he has been associated closely with Dalian's development zone.

When the city hosted a festival promoting the development zone last summer, it invited foreign diplomats for a boat ride in the harbor, and put on a music show that featured an American Elvis Presley imitator, according to one Western diplomat who attended.

Yet some members of this younger generation clearly would not follow the American political tradition. In a rare interview with a foreign journalist, Xi Jinping, the princeling who is party secretary in Fuzhou, made clear that he favored the socialist system, warts and all.

"Each country is always in the process of developing and changing," said Xi, who is credited with pushing many of the open-door policies in the southern cities of Xiamen and Fuzhou in Fujian province. "Our path is a socialist one, but a lot needs to be perfected. . . . We need continuous experimentation, continuous reform."

A long essay published earlier this month in a Hong Kong magazine purports to offer some additional insight into the political thinking of some of the more prominent members of the generation. The essay, reportedly written under the direction of the younger Chen and two others, talks about a "Third Force," independent of the reformist and conservative factions that are struggling for control of the party.

This force argues that the party must avoid the old "revolutionary" methods of class struggle. China can never again launch another economic debacle like the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, or another Cultural Revolution, it argues.

The party must be realistic and acknowledge that "the past ideology has very little appeal to a certain number of masses, and the reinforcement of the old ideology can only lead to resistance," the essay said.

Climbing the Political Ladder

Nepotism has always been part of China's paternalistic political and social culture. On the breakaway island of Taiwan, the powerful Chiang family ruled for four decades, first under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, then under his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Under the Communists' authoritarian regime, that tendency has been reinforced. Deng Xiaoping, who returned to power for the third time after the Cultural Revolution, tried to emphasize a more merit-based system for choosing China's leaders, stressing youth, technical education, as well as political reliability. Still, many offspring of these senior leaders were assigned to lower-level posts to give them leadership experience.

Of China's current leaders, the widely unpopular Premier Li Peng is perhaps the most prominent example of someone who has benefited from his family connections. The son of a revolutionary martyr, Li was adopted by the late premier Zhou Enlai, sent to study at the Moscow Power Institute in 1948, and embarked on an extended career in China's powerful energy bureaucracy, from which he was elevated to vice premier in 1983.

In promoting the younger generation, Deng's original aim was to lay the groundwork for a peaceful and orderly transition. Yet some analysts note that the original strategy may have backfired because Deng "has added another layer of jealousy in an already factionalized leadership," Western Michigan University's Tanner said.

"Now they have to worry about how fast their kids are rising in comparison with their colleagues' kids," he said.

Those tensions will increase with each progression up the political ladder.

"It's easy to dole out jobs if all you're talking about is your garden variety upper-level management positions," Tanner said. "But once you're talking about spots on the {party} Central Committee, State Council or {party} Politburo . . . the number of remaining discretional posts is rather small, and the competition is bound to become more bitter."

Even if members of this younger generation prove their own merits, many Chinese say their rise to power only highlights the fundamental inequity of the system.

"These are not the only people with skills," said one Chinese professional in his thirties, who is also a party member. "There are thousands of others, more talented and more competent than them who will never get the chance to be promoted. This is why the system is so unjust."