The following story, making the rounds of Beijing, tells much about the aspirations and frustrations of Chinese about to observe the 49th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. In a tete-a-tete with President Bill Clinton during his Beijing visit last summer, President Jiang Zemin reportedly made a number of private pledges on reform. Apart from a faster pace for the integration of the Chinese economy into the global marketplace, Mr Jiang promised to do more on political liberalisation. This included general elections for relatively senior officials, end of state monopoly of the media, and a new deal for the nation's dissident intellectuals. Mr Clinton was so impressed, that at his press conference in Hong Kong on July 3, the United States President praised Mr Jiang as a 'leader with vision'. Even more interesting is that while Mr Jiang's propagandists played up Mr Clinton's eulogy in internal briefings for cadres, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief's statements on reform were never mentioned. To be sure, few China analysts expect the neo-conservative President to do much in the sensitive period up to the PRC's 50th anniversary in October next year. What the CCP General Secretary told Mr Clinton was apparently that the reforms would only come to pass in the last year or so of his tenure, meaning around 2002. Yet the cold wind of shou ('retreating from reform') now blowing out of the Zhongnanhai party headquarters is cause for concern that such initiatives may be mothballed indefinitely. After all, the pattern of promises made and broken has characterised the entire 20 years of the history of reform. Mr Jiang's 'visions', however, show at least that the 72-year-old helmsman is aware of world currents and the people's demands. What is more, moderate members of Mr Jiang's think tanks, including relatively liberal academics such as Wang Huning and Liu Ji, have been successful in getting their boss interested in an array of new-fangled ideas. A major strategy of intellectuals in China is to force the Jiang administration - or at least its benign persona - to honour its reform pledges quickly and without reservation. Indeed, a comparison between those promises on the one hand, and the procrastinations and betrayals on the other, sheds much light on the country's future. Take popular participation in politics and Beijing's treatment of underground dissidents. During a swing through Anhui Province last week, Mr Jiang observed that 'grassroots rural democracy' - including the now-famous village balloting - must proceed 'under CCP leadership and at an orderly, gradual pace'. Mr Jiang's message was despite reports that grassroots elections would be expanded to the county level, no such bold gestures were on the cards. What is not well known, however, is a number of Mr Jiang's key aides had not long ago proposed a 'time-table for universal polls', which envisages the election of state leaders in less than 20 years. Immediately after the 15th Party Congress last September, a host of administration advisers suggested Beijing simplify the procedures for registering quasi-political organisations. Criteria for registration - and quasi-legitimisation - included acquiescence in CCP leadership, endorsement by community leaders and a full list of members' names and addresses. Last month, however, the Jiang team backed off when scores of dissidents in at least eight provinces and cities tried to register the China Democracy Party under similar terms. The pendulum had swung the other way. The underground party was declared an illegal outfit and many affiliates picked up by police. Equally intriguing is the chasm between liberal government advisers' concepts of national reunification - and the harsh reality. As early as the mid-1980s, when Mr Jiang was party boss of Shanghai, he and his advisers had commissioned studies on versions of the 'federal system' as a model for the mainland's relations with Taiwan, Hong Kong and ethnic minorities. That the concept of 'one China' could be most flexible and could be gleaned from what Jiang confidant Wang Daohan told a Taiwanese delegation last year: the China that will be formed after reunification will not be the PRC but an entity to be forged by both sides. More recently, the think-tank members have come up with notions such as 'one country, three systems' and 'one country, many systems'. The shou mood, however, is on the upswing. And few anticipate a thaw even after the ice-breaking meeting in Beijing next month between Mr Wang and top Taiwan negotiator Koo Chen-foo. The Jiang leadership is also resorting to time-honoured delaying tactics when it comes to PLA modernisation. Last July, Mr Jiang surprised even his critics by taking the risky step of slapping a ban on army-related businesses. However, Mr Jiang has yet to grasp the nettle on the more crucial goal of PLA 'civilianisation', including appointing more civilians to top army posts. Civilianisation, which entails state control of the army, is seen as the only way to prevent the generals from interfering in politics. Earlier suggestions by Mr Jiang's aides to revitalise the Ministry of Defence - and to staff senior ministry positions with non-PLA cadres - have been postponed indefinitely. Last but not least, economic reform - and the core task of restructuring state-owned enterprises (SOEs) - has been put on the back-burner. Slogans bandied about at the time of the 15th Congress. such as privatisation or gufenhua (converting SOEs into shareholding companies), have disappeared from the mainstream media. The same is true even for the relatively conservative dictum of 'taking a firm grip on large SOEs and letting the small ones go free'. Signs are that what some Sinologists call the law of diminishing silver linings may reign until the republic's 60th, even 70th birthday.