FACED with an edict from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that ''slow growth is not socialism'', China's economic tsar Zhu Rongji is seeking to redefine what Beijing sees as rapid economic growth. ''All along, we stood for a high economic growth rate because this is the need of the development of China,'' the vice-premier said in an interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal. ''The point is, what can be regarded as a high growth rate? Between 1979 and 1991, it was seven to eight per cent. That is a high rate,'' Mr Zhu said. The double-digit growth of the last two years was not sustainable. Eight or nine per cent was the optimal level. However, he conceded that China was unlikely to reduce growth to that level for at least two years. His comments were generally welcomed by Western economists in Beijing concerned that attempts to push a 13 per cent growth rate even higher could lead to economic dislocation. ''It is refreshing to see that there is at least one person in the senior leadership who has not got carried away with the idea of explosive economic growth,'' one economic analyst said. ''The only question is will Mr Zhu's pragmatic views hold sway with the rest of the leadership,'' he added. The vice-premier denied reports that the Government's austerity programme was over, saying that restrictions on money supply had not yet been lifted. Although inflation, running at 12 per cent, was relatively low by international standards, Mr Zhu said the Government was determined to bring price rises down to single figures next year, or at worst 10 per cent or 15 per cent in urban areas. Mr Zhu's public contradiction, or re-interpretation, of policy directives attributed to Mr Deng are being seen as an indication that the liberal wing of the party is losing economic influence. ''I don't think Zhu would go out on a limb like that unless he was confident of some pretty substantial backing from others in the party hierarchy,'' said an Asian diplomat who often meets senior party leaders. As if to underline his confidence in his own position, Mr Zhu played down press reports that he had made some dangerous enemies when persuading provincial governments to contribute more tax to central Government. ''I pulled money from their pockets but we maintained our friendship,'' Mr Zhu was quoted as saying. His comments were backed by the Guangdong party secretary Xie Fei, who said recently there was no fundamental conflict between provinces and Beijing over tax distribution.