THE rooster's contribution to civilisation is telling the time - and rousing somnolent souls to the reality of day. The big question for China this year is: can Deng Xiaoping seize the day? Or has time and its tribulations finally caught up with him? On the face of it, Deng is ready, to use an old Chinese proverb, to dance to the first notes of the rooster. The old man displayed his footwork on the eve of Lunar New Year, when he told Chinese Communist Party cadres in Shanghai to ''seize the opportunity''. ''I hope you won't lose this opportunity,'' the patriarch told his compatriots, especially those along the south-east coast. ''For China, there aren't that many opportunities for major development.'' Deng went on to point out that one notable ''opportunity'' consisted in the tens of millions of huaqiao, or ethnic Chinese residing abroad. He particularly admonished the denizens of Shanghai, ''who had already worked hard for one year,'' to ''brave the wind and ride the waves'' for another year. It is obvious, however, that, at least compared with his nanxun, or ''imperial tour to the south'' a year ago, the patriarch is less sure about time being on his side. In January 1992, Deng almost singlehandedly rekindled market reforms when he urged hiscountrymen to seize the hour. ''Without high-speed development, [economic] growth and reform run the risk of retrogressing'', he said. ''We must cross a new threshold every few years.'' For Shanghai, he had this to say: ''Have a facelift once every year, a major transformation once every three years''. Speaking last Friday, however, Deng was more cautious. ''It is necessary to look back after taking a step forward'', he said. ''Pay attention to being stable and evenly paced. Avoid losses, especially big losses.'' For Deng-watchers, the terse statements in Shanghai, yield fascinating insights into the paramount leader's statecraft, including his intriguing sense of timing. The New Helmsman's body clock seems to be wound to three different measures: the fast-forward mode; the one-step-forward-half-a-step-back, or now-left-now-right mode; and the procrastination, only-time-will-tell mode. As much a disciple of as a rebel against Mao, Deng has difficulty sloughing off the Great Leap Forward mentality. In the heady days of 1957 - also a Year of the Rooster - the Great Helmsman agonised to achieve ''instant Communism'' through ''catching up with Great Britain and the United States in three years''. Mao's rooster did not tell day from night so much as telescope an eternity in a few hours. Deng went into Great Leap Forward gear in early 1988, when he, together with ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang, pronounced that ''short-term pain is better than long-term pain'' - and tried to accomplish price reform in half a year. Many economists suspectthat during the nanxun, Deng's timepiece spun too fast too soon. Unlike Mao, however, Deng is susceptible to Hamlet-like self-doubt, which accounts for those excruciating moments when he is not sure which way the sand in the hour-glass is going. Perhaps because of the advice from party chief Jiang Zemin and Premier LiPeng, the Chief Architect of Reform seems hounded by misgivings about economic overheating. This explains why while Deng called on Shanghai workers to ''brave the wind and ride the wave'', he also urged them to be ''steady, even-paced, and sure-footed.'' And how is one supposed to ''seize the opportunity'' and at the same time ''look back after having taken one step forward''? Indeed, when, at about five in the morning, one is not certain whether darkness has ceded to light, one is reminded of that famous Deng aphorism: ''cross the river while feeling out for the boulders''. One of the least noticed of Deng's nanxun instructions is his claim to have been the author of ''a great [theoretical] invention''. ''Steer clear of controversy'', Deng said. ''When it's not yet time to draw the conclusion, stay away from arguments.'' Incredibly, this nihilistic approach to governance was enshrined as policy last month when the new Head of Propaganda, Ding Guan'gen, pronounced that ideological and media workers should be guided by the principle of ''not engaging in controversy''. On the surface, it means the nation can proceed with market-oriented experiments even though there are still arguments on whether they are ''surnamed socialism or capitalism''. On a deeper level, Deng is saying that at present it would be self-destructive for the party to ask what is the June 4 phenonemon and who is responsible for it; whether Mao's contributions outweighed his crimes; or whether China needs socialism. Deng seems so obsessed with the history books that he is sapped of the energy to do things that could influence historians. Time is not on the side of an 88-year-old. However, precisely because of this, the ''little man in a big hurry'' should realise that seizing the opportunity means plunging headlong into controversy. Since the 50s the CCP has been harping on its great ''opportunity'' of having nearly 100 million overseas Chinese. Since the Tiananmen crisis, a large number of ethnic-Chinese businessmen have returned to invest in the motherland. However, until Deng or his immediate successor dares to face the reality of the moment - and to re-open wounds like June 4 - the CCP can never win the hearts of the huaqiao. Many intellectuals in Beijing think that because of his propensity for two-facedness and for procrastination, Deng has betrayed the nation at least three times: the campaign against spiritual pollution in 1983, the campaign against bourgeois liberalisation in 1987, and June 4. It's now down to the seconds. The rooster is about to crow.