From live TV reports on America threatening to attack Iraq to stories on lurid local crimes, China's news media are showing flashes of vibrancy amid their usual stodgy coverage of government leaders.

While the endless meetings, speeches and factory tours of the Communist Party elite are not out, more lively and timely reporting is appearing. Even People's Daily, the staid party paper of record, is wearing a human face."We want to reduce vague, substandard reports and do more things readers are interested in," said Li Renchen, deputy editor-in-chief of People's Daily.

So far, the changes appear slight and largely cosmetic. But should the loosening go unchecked, the long-restrained media may be headed for a period of freedom unseen since the heady democracy movement of the late 1980s.

People's Daily joined the trend in January, introducing new weekly sections on the economy, arts and society.

To find out what readers wanted, People's Daily used that most capitalist tool, a market survey. It helped. An article in the new society section criticizing the common use of official funds for parties drew one of the largest responses ever, Li said.

Just as the made-over People's Daily debuted, party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, the party's No. 2 official and an old-style conservative, were widely quoted as favoring a watchdog role for the press.

China Central Television ran reports on one eastern city's polluted water supply. Mass poisonings from liquor spiked with industrial alcohol and the bombing of a bus crossing a Yangtze River bridge all received timely if not always probing coverage.

In the past, such catastrophes would have been ignored or reported days or weeks later once censors sorted out a sanitized version.

At the height of the latest U.S.-Iraqi tensions, China Central Television sent a crew with a mobile satellite transmitter to Baghdad, the network's first such overseas foray. The nightly national newscast featured split-screen interviews between anchor and on-the-spot reporter.

Insiders at CCTV and other front-line state media remain leery of the censors' softer touch. Party media czars periodically have allowed newspapers and TV news shows to exceed established limits only to beat them back in the next political campaign.