The two players in this theatre are President Jiang Zemin and Qiao Shi, chairman of China's National People's Congress (NPC) and the third most powerful figure in the leadership. Yesterday, as they both took centre- stage in the Great Hall of the People to launch the 96th gathering of the global Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), local diplomats were on the alert for evidence of friction between them.
The present saga started just under two weeks ago when Mr Qiao gave a rare interview to a foreign newspaper. Asked if there were some "leftists" who wanted to reverse the reforms, he told the German paper Handelsblatt: "Deng Xiaoping correctly stated we are influenced by rightist factors, but even more deeply rooted leftist factors. China should beware of the rightist factors, but under all circumstances prevent the leftist factors." He admitted that there were often "clashes" between leaders when new laws were under discussion in the NPC.
Mr Qiao is seen as one of China's reformers, despite being a former head of party discipline. He again stressed that the role of the unelected NPC, which in practice functions as a rubber stamp, was to evolve into a body to promote the rule of law. A more powerful NPC would also provide a useful base for Mr Qiao in the event of leadership realignments following the death of 92-year-old Mr Deng. "We must institutionalise our democracy and anchor it in law. We must make sure that the system and laws will not change because of a leadership change or because of changing opinions and changing interests of leading personalities," Mr Qiao told the newspaper.
For China-watchers, this was a clear assault on Mr Jiang's presumed plan to restructure the party and to recreate the post of Chairman - for himself. It is widely reported that there would also be two positions of party vice-chairmen, one for the retiring Prime Minister, Li Peng, and the other for Mr Qiao. Such very high-level positions must be decided in the autumn of 1997 at a full party congress, an event held only once every five years. This congress is crucial because it will set in place a leadership team for the post-Deng era, a time when Mr Qiao is expected to be an important power-broker.
While Mr Qiao's interview received scant attention in the Chinese press, a few days later Mr Jiang himself held forth to the French newspaper Le Figaro in a set-piece which was plastered all over the official media. "I can make it clear to all people who are following developments in China that China is stable now and will certainly maintain a long-term stability," he said. There were "no riots in China's rural areas in the past and there will be no riots in the future", he added. In fact, peasant and worker unrest is on the rise throughout China as people feel freer to vent complaints, including the fact that they have no legal redress against corrupt officials.
Mr Jiang, as the heir apparent to Mr Deng, is staking his political future on a campaign for stability, even if this means appeasing "leftists". Thus, his rallying call has been to "talk more about politics" and to launch an old-style campaign for "spiritual civilisation", a blend of nationalist, anti-Western and family-values propaganda. In contrast, Mr Qiao has stressed the need to push ahead with reforms, even on difficult issues such as state enterprises.
Yesterday, two very different styles of politician again emerged. Mr Qiao told the IPU that the NPC had "improved and strengthened the supervision" over China's administrative and judicial organs. Running the country "under the rule of law" would ensure the success of China's reforms.
Mr Jiang meanwhile was on the nationalist bandwagon, attacking "hegemonism and power politics" in the world. The best he could offer the world's parliamentarians was a pronouncement that "the socialist democratic political system . . . will demonstrate increasingly greater vitality".