THE recent rash of peasant and labour unrest has put the Chinese Communist Party on the spot: can it continue to claim to be ''the party of workers, peasants and soldiers''? Or has the ''revolutionary'' party so successfully gone down the road of the socialist market economy that its sympathies now lie with the new class of cadre capitalists, private entrepreneurs and joint-venture bosses? Let us first look at the farmers. Following Marx and Engels, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have always cited urban workers as the ''pioneers'' and ''pace-setters'' of the revolution. It is well-known, however, that China having lacked the basic socio-economic conditions for a classic communist insurrection, Mao and his guerillas triumphed on the tattered coat-tails of the peasantry. After 1949, however, Mao decided to adopt the Soviet model to modernisation - squeeze the farmers for the funds to develop heavy industry and defence - and the Chairman's agrarian comrades-in-arms have been shortchanged ever since. It is characteristic of Beijing's attitude that it has refused to look at this month's riots in Renshou county, Sichuan Province, straight in the eye. With up to 10,000 rural folk surrounding government buildings and attacking officials, it was arguably the worst outbreak of violence since the June 4, 1989, tragedy. A NATIONAL news black-out has been imposed on the protests, which were provoked by heavy taxes and ''special levies'', including those for expanding Highway 213. The Chinese-run Hongkong daily, Wen Wei Po, last weekend classified the incident as one of ''beating, smashing and looting''. The same terms were used to characterise disturbances perpetrated by Red Guards and by ''ruffians and other dregs of society'' during the spring of 1989. Because of press censorship, it is difficult to estimate how many Renshou-type riots have broken out in recent months. Seasoned analysts say the Sichuan disaster is the tip of the iceberg of a groundswell of discontent. The gravity of the situation is evidenced not just by numerous word-of-mouth reports from villages in different provinces but by precautions taken by Beijing. A Tiananmen-style Counter-the-Rebellion Headquarters was set up at the height of the Renshou flare-up. Crack units from forces that had taken part in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War were called in. Somewhat belatedly, the new Agriculture Minister, Liu Jiang, pledged last Saturday to help farmers to make the transition to ''small-scale prosperity''. Mr Liu said the per capita income of peasants was 700-odd yuan and that of urban residents 1,200 yuan. Independent analysts put the urban-rural disparity as at least 21/2 times. Remuneration has been hurt by bumper crops depressing produce prices, and by the withdrawal of state subsidies. Aside from those having to do with agriculture, peasants are burdened with taxes and levies for education, social insurance and welfare, and development projects. Anhui folk have to fork out nine different types of fees before they are allowed to build their own houses. Since the spring, the phenomenon of ''white slips of paper'' - local administrations paying peasants with IOUs - has been compounded with that of ''green slips of paper''. Thousand upon thousand of parents in the poorest districts were shocked to find that local cadres had held up bank drafts sent home by their sons and daughters who were toiling in the cities as migrant labourers. A green slip of paper acknowledging the remittances was all they got. Confrontation between the government and farmers has been exacerbated by the real estate boom, and suspicion by the latter that the authorities are ripping off their land to consummate billion-dollar deals with Hongkong and foreign developers. Not long ago, 4,000 farmers in the city of Jieyang, Guangdong, took over a section of the Guangzhou-Shantou Highway to protest against the poor rates the local government had paid them for plots which had been vouchsafed to overseas businessmen. Unrest in the countryside has been echoed by labour trouble in the cities. Again because of the news blackout, reports of strikes, demonstrations and other industrial action have mostly been coming out of joint venture factories in cities close to Hongkong such as Zhuhai. Incidence of labour malaise in partially foreign-owned concerns in coastal cities may also be higher because workers in state-owned units in the heartland are under tighter surveillance by state security. In the latter, discontent has often manifested itself in suicides - or brutal attacks against managers and supervisors. A survey by the official Federation of Trade Unions this year showed five per cent of urban workers, or seven million people, faced dire hardship. Aside from inflation of over 20 per cent in the cities, labourers have been hit by the country's radical reforms, which include scaling down sunset industries. At least 2.5 million iron rice bowls in the textiles and garment trade, and 400,000in the coal-mining sector, are under threat. With the new imperative of cutting costs and boosting competitiveness, working conditions in many factories, including those run by private entrepreneurs, have sunk to Dickensian levels. Aside from the exploitation of child and women labour, industrial incidents are mounting. A total of 153 workers perished in state coal mines in the first four months of this year, up 107 per cent from 1992. Beijing indicated last week it was putting thefinishing touches to a Labour law, which had, quite inexplicably, taken 14 years to draft. The new legislation, would reportedly include a minimum wage. For example, the monthly compensation for Shanghai workers would start at 198 yuan, and that for Shenzhen and Zhuhai, respectively 250 yuan and 350 yuan. However, with the authorities firm on freezing political reforms, Chinese workers are unlikely to get rights taken for granted in the ''capitalistic'' West. They include the freedom to form trade unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike. According to a recent survey, more than four million Chinese boast monthly incomes of at least 30,000 yuan. Most of these are private businessmen and ''red capitalists''. Unless the farmers in Renzhou and the workers in Zhuhai are convinced that they, too, have ample opportunities to strike it rich, the CCP could see the foundation of its support unravel.