CRUDELY put, patriarch Deng Xiaoping has given his protege Zhu Rongji ropes too short for lugging the ship of state out of the shark-infested shoals - but long enough with which to hang himself. The past few months have proven to be cruel comeuppance for such a fire-spitting honcho as the Executive Vice-Premier, who has threatened to chop off the heads of subordinates for disobeying orders such as not issuing IOUs to farmers in lieu of cash payment. That Mr Zhu is fighting for his political life is evident from a closed-door speech he gave to the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) last week. In an emotional two hours and 40 minutes address, the Economic Czar hinted for the first time that his own head might roll. ''I would step down if the economic problems cannot be cured'', he said half-threateningly, half in self-pity. The way the three-month-old austerity programme is going, Mr Zhu, who has taken advantage of the heart ailment of Premier Li Peng to grasp practically all economic powers, seems to be in a no-win situation. In spite of ''good news'' including the fact that the rate of industrial growth in September had dipped below 20 per cent for the first time in 14 months, basic ills like the runaway money supply and rank corruption remain entrenched as ever. Owing to Mr Deng's obsession with a ''high-growth model'' and his impatience for results, however, Mr Zhu has been obliged to acquiesce in a temporary moratorium on the retrenchment game plan. A more fundamental reason for Mr Zhu's reluctant retreat is massive resistance from the provinces, whose support the Executive Vice-Premier badly needs. A rumour doing the rounds of Beijing is that triads in the cowboy province of Hainan, who reportedly have big joint ventures with civilian and military businesses, had taken out a contract on the 65-year-old vice-premier. In private, Mr Zhu and his expanded brains trust have admitted their attention has shifted from ''boosting macro-economic adjustments and controls'' - a euphemism for retrenchment - to ''deep-seated and comprehensive reforms''. Economists in Beijing said, however, given such dire problems as the depletion of central coffers, Mr Zhu's priority was not further liberalisation but recentralisation - taking back powers, specially tax revenues, from the regions. Given such constraints, it is doubtful whether the reforms the economics czar is drafting will expedite the materialisation of a true market economy, seen as the only solution to the economic malaise. Skewered on the horns of these dilemmas, Mr Zhu has taken an uncharacteristically low profile in the past fortnight. The official media made only a negligible mention of his bitter speech to the CPPCC last week. Not surprisingly, Mr Zhu's rivals, including an apparently recuperated Premier Li, have manoeuvred to pull the rug from under him. Making the best out of his sickness and enforced absence from office, Mr Li has washed his hands of the economic woes - and dumped everything on Mr Zhu's platter. In a briefing to a group of American entrepreneurs on Monday, the reinvigorated premier made a sly dig at Mr Zhu. ''China mainly uses economic means, not executive orders, to strengthen macro-level adjustments and controls,'' he said. What diabolical cunning! Mr Li, the Soviet-trained engineer renowned for his state fiats, was apparently poking fun at the fact that Mr Zhu, the putative ''Chinese Gorbachev'', had bungled in his attempt to revive elements of the command economy to whip the regions into line. One after another, real and potential rivals of Mr Zhu, including President Jiang Zemin and Vice-Premiers Li Lanqing and Zou Jiahua, have in effect called off the austerity programme. In the past week all three have reiterated that the thrust of economicpolicy-making had turned to ''sustained, high-speed and healthy development,'' which had been Mr Deng's credo before the onset of the retrenchment drive. Significantly, Mr Zhu has refused to acknowledge publicly an end to his rectification crusade. Mr Zou, who is a credible contender for the premier's job thanks to his military connections, told a group of entrepreneurs on Monday that ''worries about a new round of 'curing and restructuring' as well as 'comprehensive retrenchment','' (exactly what Mr Zhu had been doing) were unfounded. SOMEWHAT illogically, Mr Zou claimed the goal of the drive to boost macro-level controls was ''sustained and speedy growth''. And mindful of the many enemies Mr Zhu had made in the regions, Mr Zou offered sops galore to the warlords by telling them, in effect, to go as fast as they like. ''China being a developing country, many sectors and areas require speeded-up development,'' he said. And on a trip to Shanghai last week, Mr Zou told cadres they should have a ''facelift once every year'' and ''cross onethreshold after the next''. Apparently, Mr Zou and Mr Jiang must have been aware that more green lights for fast-paced local development would trigger another round of hyperinflation. Mr Zhu, however, is the top dog who will have to bear the responsibility. And for the moment, the imperatives of jockeying for position reign supreme. Analysts said, however, Mr Zhu's political fortunes might not necessarily have taken a fatal drubbing. They said he still enjoyed Mr Deng's support, and, with the temporary suspension of the austerity programme, the ''Great Rectifier'', too, had gone about wooing the regional chieftains. Hong Kong and Taiwan newspapers have reported that on a recent trip to Anhui, Mr Zhu promised provincial cadres a fresh injection of central funds of 10.5 billion yuan, one billion yuan more than requested. The same reports said should the present leadership - including Mr Jiang, Mr Li and Mr Zhu - fail to resolve the economic imbroglio, the patriarch was prepared to tap other leaders for the post-Deng era. They include the head of the National People's Congress and the CPPCC, respectively Qiao Shi and Li Ruihuan, who are both relatively liberal members of the Politburo. Having early this year been ''sidelined'' to the legislative and consultative organs, neither Mr Qiao nor Mr Li have to bear any responsibility for the economic mess.