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During its decades of rapid growth, China thrived by allowing once-suppressed private entrepreneurs to prosper, often at the expense of the old, inefficient state sector of the economy.

Now, whether in the coal-rich regions of Shanxi province, the steel mills of the northern industrial heartland, or the airlines flying overhead, it is often China’s state-run companies that are on the march.

As the Chinese government has grown richer — and more worried about sustaining its high-octane growth — it has pumped public funds into companies that it expects to upgrade the industrial base and employ more people. The beneficiaries are state-owned interests that many analysts had assumed would gradually wither away in the face of private-sector competition.

New data from the World Bank show that the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse. Moreover, investment by state-controlled companies skyrocketed, driven by hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending and state bank lending to combat the global financial crisis.

They join a string of other signals that are fueling discussion among analysts about whether China, which calls itself socialist but is often thought of in the West as brutally capitalist, is in fact seeking to enhance government control over some parts of the economy.

The distinction may matter more today than it once did. China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy this year, and its state-directed development model is enormously appealing to poor countries. Even in the West, many admire China’s ability to build a first-world infrastructure and transform its cities into showpieces.

Once eager to learn from the United States, China’s leaders during the financial crisis have reaffirmed their faith in their own more statist approach to economic management, in which private capitalism plays only a supporting role.

“The socialist system’s advantages,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in a March address, “enable us to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.”

Stave vs. private

The issue of state versus private control is a slippery one in China. After decades of economic reform, many big state-owned companies face real competition and are expected to operate profitably. The biggest private companies often get their funding from state banks, coordinate their investments with the government and seat their chief executives on government advisory panels.

Chinese leaders also no longer publicly emphasize sharp ideological distinctions about ownership. But they never relaxed state control over some sectors considered strategically vital, including finance, defense, energy, telecommunications, railways and ports.

Wen and President Hu Jintao are also seen as less attuned to the interests of foreign investors and China’s own private sector than the earlier generation of leaders who pioneered economic reforms. They prefer to enhance the clout and economic reach of state-backed companies at the top of the pecking order.

“China’s always had a major industrial policy. But for a space of a few years, it looked like China was turning away from an active and interventionist industrial policy in favor of a more hands-off approach,” Victor Shih, a Northwestern University political scientist, said in a recent telephone interview.

Shih, among others, now believes that the 1980s reforms that unleashed China’s private sector and the 1990s reforms that dismantled great swaths of the state-run sector are being partly undone.

“The problem is that the reforms of the first 20 years, from 1978 to the end of the ‘90s, actually did not touch on the power of the government,” said Yao Yang, a Peking University professor who heads the China Center for Economic Research. “So after the other reforms were finished, you actually find the government is expanding, because there is no check and balance on its power.”

Divining government’s role

There are no comprehensive statistics to catalog the government’s influence over the economy. So the shift is partly inferred from coarse measures like the share of financing in the economy provided by state banks, which rose sharply during the financial crisis, or the list of the 100 largest publicly listed Chinese companies, all but one of which are majority state owned.

The statistic showing an uptick in the share of industrial production attributable to the state sector is regarded by some analysts as a blip rather than the start of a trend. The World Bank’s senior economist in Beijing, Louis Kuijs, said the state sector’s unusually rapid growth will most likely moderate with the ending of the government’s stimulus spending.

“As the growth process normalizes again, the traditional trend toward a declining SOE share will take over again,” he wrote in an e-mail message, using the shorthand for state-owned enterprise. “I don’t think that the senior leaders had a strategy of reversing this trend.”

But others argue that officials had always intended to create a vibrant state sector that would tower above the private sector in important industries, even as they sold off or shut down money-losing state enterprises that drained capital from the government budget and banking system.

Recent alarm over the expanding role of the state, said Arthur Kroeber of Dragonomics, an economic forecasting firm based in Beijing, is mostly “perception catching up with reality.”

In some ways, the differences in this debate are small. Everyone agrees that China runs a bifurcated economy: at one level, a robust and competitive private sector dominates industries like factory-assembled exports, clothing and food. And at higher levels like finance, communications, transportation, mining and metals — the commanding heights — the central government claims majority ownership and a measure of management control.

Yet the two camps’ view of China’s future are markedly different. Those who see little evidence of an expanding state sector generally believe that China has a decade or more of robust growth awaiting it before its economy matures. Theirs is a Goldilocks view of state intervention — not too much or too little, but just enough to push a developing economy toward prosperity.

The skeptics have a darker view: They believe distortions and waste, in no small part due to government meddling, have resulted in gross misallocation of capital and will end up pushing growth rates down well before 2020. What drives their pessimism, the skeptics say, is that China, like Japan a generation ago, has too much confidence in a top-down economic strategy that defies conventional Western theory.

The skeptics also point to what they say is the growing political and financial influence of China’s state-owned giants — 129 huge conglomerates that answer directly to the central government, and thousands of smaller ones run by the provinces and cities.

While no public breakdown exists, most experts say the vast bulk of the 4 trillion renminbi ($588 billion) stimulus package that China pumped out for new highways, railroads and other big projects went to state-owned companies. Some of the largest companies used the flood of money to strengthen their dominance in their current markets or to enter new ones.

“In 2009, there was a huge expansion of the government role in the corporate sector,” Huang Yasheng, a leading analyst of China-style capitalism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview. “They’re producing yogurt. They’re into real estate. Some of the upstream state-owned enterprises are now expanding downstream, organizing themselves as vertical units. They’re just operating on a much larger scale.”