China: Will Jiang's Power Play Set Off Political Unrest?

It was supposed to be the most orderly transfer of power in China's modern history. In a scenario planned years ago by then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, President Jiang Zemin was to step down as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 16th Party Congress this fall. Hu Jintao, vice-president, head of the Communist Party School and one of Deng's anointed, would then take Jiang's place as party chief and, next spring, as President.

But now, rumors are swirling that Jiang wants to hang on to power--and he's wooing party leaders for their backing. With this turn of events, the party's annual summit now getting under way at the seaside resort of Beidaihe assumes tremendous significance. "This meeting will be crucial in shaping the final lineup" of China's leadership, says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert who advised the Clinton Administration.

Jiang, 76, longs to ensure for himself a top place in Communist Party history books, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng. Observers say he wants more time at the top to oversee his policies of strengthening China's relations with the rest of the world, bringing Taiwan back closer to the mainland, and integrating China into the global economy. He also wants to make his philosophy for expanding the party's base--a theory known as the "Three Represents"--part of Chinese doctrine. "He is looking to hold onto a maximum amount of power," says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

The risk is that by preserving a powerful role, Jiang could split the party between mostly older cadres who support him vs. those officials--both younger and older--who want Jiang to step down so a new generation can take the reins. Although these factions wouldn't largely disagree over policy, infighting could destabilize the country as it's facing key challenges. At worst, analysts say, China could end up with a divided government at a time when impoverished farmers, unemployed workers, and others who feel victimized by reforms are taking to the streets. "You could end up with a prolonged period of social and political unrest," Lieberthal says.

No matter what unfolds at Beidaihe, Jiang will have to give up the presidency next year. China's constitution limits the President and Premier to two terms. But sources say Jiang is looking into staying on in the post of General Secretary or kicking himself upstairs to become party Chairman--a post eliminated after Mao's rule. Jiang may try some horse-trading at Beidaihe. One idea making the rounds is that he will back the candidacy of Luo Gan for the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Luo is the protege of Li Peng, 74, the hard-line chief of the National People's Congress who is supposed to step down. With Luo in his new post, Li would still have influence: As payment, Li would likely back Jiang's bid to stay on. Analysts say Jiang aims to stack the Standing Committee with supporters. He is expected to keep his post as chief of the military.

With all the maneuvering going on, the Party Congress, originally expected in September, could be postponed until November. Meanwhile, observers are watching the ever-cautious Hu, who is likely to count on the support of other leaders in his quest to become General Secretary as well as President. One ally may be Li Ruihuan, 68, a Standing Committee member and longtime Jiang adversary. The coming days could show whether Jiang follows the late Deng's wishes and relinquishes power gracefully--or tilts China into a period of political uncertainty.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

Edited by Rose Brady

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