LET a hundred plots thicken. Factional intrigue and contention have become so ferocious a Beijing observer might think that 'inner-party democracy' has finally arrived, if only through the back door. As is true with other watershed periods in Communist-Chinese history, the first salvoes of post-Deng Xiaoping politics manifest themselves in a bundle of contradictions and a clash of symbols. President Jiang Zemin and Beijing party boss Chen Xitong, who have been at each other's throats since 1989, wielded picks and shovels together at a tree-planting ceremony in the capital earlier this month. 'Immortal' Chen Yun was buried on Monday alongside central planner Li Xiannian, a former president, at the Babaoshan cemetery for veteran proletariats. Newly installed Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo, whose brief is modernising state enterprises, began a tour of Hubei province last week by playing up his 'revolutionary' credentials. He inspected the site of the Huangma Uprising against the Kuomintang and paid homage to Li's ancestral home. At a just-ended tour of Jiangxi province, conservative elder Song Ping surprised local cadres by singing the praises of the contract family responsibility system, the brainchild by radical reformers under Mr Deng. So much energy of the top cadres is consumed with skulduggery and back-stabbing - or watching the spectacles unfold - one wonders how much time is left for policy-making. A senior Western diplomat was barely exaggerating when he said last week that business in the capital had ground to a near halt because nobody was sure what would happen next to the municipal leadership after the supposed suicide of vice-mayor Wang Baosen. For the moment, however, party chief Mr Chen, a burly ex-policeman with savvy who many claim is at least 'morally responsible' for the spate of corruption in the capital, is thumbing his nose at Mr Jiang. Bad blood between the two has flowed since the former Shanghai party boss' unexpected promotion to general secretary in June 1989. Mr Chen refused to accord Mr Jiang even the status of first among equals. He snubbed Mr Jiang's protege, Vice-Premier Wu, when the latter was transferred from Shanghai to Beijing last September. In a recent speech that has been characterised as 'death-defying', Mr Chen challenged his detractors by vowing that the anti-corruption campaign in his city be 'waged until the very end'. In spite of his failure to remove Mr Chen, Mr Jiang is thought to have benefitted from the power vacuum created by the death of elder Chen and the incapacitation of Mr Deng. If confirmed, the reported transfer of Chen Yun's son, vice-governor of the People's Bank Chen Yuan, to the governorship of Qinghai, a Siberia-like province, would serve the same purpose as the detention of Shougang Corp executive Zhou Beifang, a protege of the Deng clan: to dramatise Mr Jiang's fast-rising clout. At the same time, however, Jiang and his cohorts are obliged to mollify a powerful conservative bloc: central planners and state entrepreneurs who had worked under Chen Yun and the late president Li Xiannian. Mr Wu's strategy for 're-invigorating' government-owned concerns is not, as shock therapists would recommend, to foreclose or privatise the money-losing dinosaurs. He has instead vowed to pump more funds into 'enterprises which can repay the debts'. Similarly, economic tsar Zhu Rongji, who has reluctantly tied himself to Mr Jiang's chariot, has espoused puzzlingly conservative themes since the spring. While touring Shanghai and Pudong last week, the executive vice-premier shocked on-lookers by dwelling on the need to 'strengthen the construction of spiritual civilisation' and monitoring the go-go city's 'ideological progress'. In internal speeches, Mr Zhu has defended his re-centralisation policies by saying: 'Do not be afraid of criticism that we have retrogressed; do not be afraid of being accused of re-introducing central planning.' The party's liberal and moderate wings, led by National People's Congress Chairman Qiao Shi and his deputy Tian Jiyun, have mounted a dazzling blitz to reclaim the limelight. Immediately after the March NPC plenum, where two Jiang nominees for the positions of vice-premier suffered humiliation, Mr Qiao and Mr Tian took the crusade to boost the legislature's 'supervisory powers' to the regions. While touring Fujian province, Mr Qiao backed no-holds-barred reform, pointing out that officials and entrepreneurs alike should 'not be afraid to take risks'. It was the fourth time in six months that the NPC chief called for liberalisation. Mr Qiao was seconded by economist Tong Dalin, an adviser of ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang. Professor Tong told a group of Guangzhou cadres that 'unless we forge ahead with reform, there will be a backlash'. While inspecting Shenzhen last week, Mr Tian, another disciple of Mr Zhao, publicly ridiculed Chen Yun's pet theory about 'taking grain as the key link'. The former vice-premier lent his authority to Guangdong's gung ho cadres by implying that it was unreasonable for Beijing to pursue Maoist autarchy by forbidding the province to import foodstuffs. And while Mr Zhu and his State Council colleagues were busily re-collectivising agriculture, Mr Tian made a spirited defence of the family plot-based contract responsibility system. Another political heavyweight from the moderate wing, former president Yang Shangkun, had wooed Guangdong party cadres during a secretive trip to Shenzhen earlier in the year. That the liberal factions might be clawing back lost territory is evident from the support they had gained from individual conservative politicians. Politburo member Li Tieying, who supported the Tiananmen Square massacre, made waves when he told officials in Hubei to 'further liberate their thought and quicken the pace of reform'. Using Deng-style language that has not appeared in the official media for a year, Mr Li indicated that 'bold explorations must be made to seize the day'. Even more intriguing are the activities of retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Song Ping, a conservative elder who is seen as Mr Jiang's competitor. The official press reported yesterday that during a 14-day tour of Jiangxi this month, Mr Song 'highly appraised the great achievements the province has made in the past decade in consolidating and promoting the family-responsibility contract system'. While inspecting central China in the same period, Mr Song's protege and successor as organisation chief, Hu Jintao, talked about the importance of 'training outstanding young people and recruiting them into the party'. Mr Jiang can only hope that the 'outstanding young people' Mr Hu picked to succeed Mr Chen and his colleagues in Beijing would be to his liking. Some diplomats in Beijing, however, believe that Mr Jiang's foes from across the political spectrum are forming strategic alliances to dump the putative 'core' of the third-generation leadership.