Hidden away behind China's public celebrations last week of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic, it was decided in Beijing to send a very important box of fortune cookies to Moscow.

As is traditional with these things, inside each cookie there is a slip of paper that carries a message.The Chinese leadership long ago understood it was wasting its time communicating with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his circle. The Chinese decided to be patient, and wait.

The fortune-cookie decision marks a new attitude in Beijing toward the latest developments in Moscow.

It is the Chinese way of acknowledging discreetly what the American government is doing noisily - that President Yeltsin's regime is finished.

No less than the Americans, the administration of President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji is anxious to know if the government that follows Yeltsin's will be more or less agreeable to China's interests. Beijing also wants to influence the outcome, if possible.

In dealing with Russians, the Chinese leadership for these past eight years has been nothing if not discreet. How to communicate was studied for weeks.

Fortune-cookies were chosen, and six messages selected for insertion. Not by coincidence, they were the six recommendations that the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party has been considering as its recipe for continuing to stay in power.

A talented calligrapher was employed to miniaturize these messages, so that the slip of paper on which each was written would fit inside the cookie.

In case the cookies fell into the hands of American agents, each message starts with the formulaic ''Confucius say . . .'' Here is what is on the slips:

* Confucius say the wise leader must maintain national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

* Confucius say the wise leader must ensure economic stability and growth.

* Confucius say the wise leader does not tolerate growing disparities between east and west, north and south.

* Confucius say the wise leader cannot enjoy the mandate of heaven if the cadres are corrupt.

* Confucius say the wise leader must rule his own family and tolerate no scandal.

* Confucius say the wise leader should demonstrate continuity from one generation to another.

Actually, these are also the recommendations that the Chinese Politburo has been considering as its own blueprint to keep Jiang and Zhu from crumbling under domestic pressure of all sorts.

The territorial issue for the Chinese is mostly Taiwan, and also Tibet. The rate of economic growth in China has been in doubt ever since the collapse of the Southeast Asian currencies, and the pressure intensified to devalue the renminbi.

The widening economic gulf between the rich coastland of Guangdong, Shanghai, and Beijing, compared to the poor heartland, has been exacerbated by natural disasters.

But the Chinese also knew that the Russian recipient would crack open his cookies and understand the Russian meaning of the messages: war in Chechnya; the Central Bank's ruble policy; the dominance of Moscow; the Yeltsin family's bank accounts; and so on.

But Jiang and Zhu wanted something more. They wanted to send their cookies to the Russian most likely to decide these matters in a way that complements, and reinforces, the policies the Chinese leaders are committed to.

The Politburo in Beijing decided the six cookies should constitute a code. When cracked, the code identifies the candidate the Chinese believe would be the best man to rule Russia next.

The candidate who fits most closely the six Confucian descriptions is the one who not only gets the cookies, but he also is the one who gets the power.

When it came to selecting that man, the Politburo called in all its top spies and Russian advisers. Their deliberation was full of joke-telling and unprintable anecdotes at the expense of a string of well-known Russian figures.

The calligrapher was finally summoned, and told to inscribe the chosen name. The diplomatic bag was sealed and dispatched to the Chinese Embassy with coded instructions for the method of its delivery.

No one but the Chinese ambassador himself was to hand the cookies over, and he was explicitly instructed to address the recipient's attention to the wisdom of Confucius.

The ambassador was not told what was inside the cookies. The calligrapher was awarded his pension, and he has disappeared.

Naturally, I am sworn to secrecy.