China: It Looks Like Jiang Will Rule from the Wings

Would he go, or not? For months, China watchers have been speculating about whether Chinese President Jiang Zemin, 76, would oversee a long-awaited orderly transfer of power in Beijing--or make a last bold bid to stay in charge at the 16th Communist Party Congress beginning on Nov. 8. Now, signs are strong that Jiang is indeed preparing to make way for a new leader--59-year-old Vice-President Hu Jintao--by stepping down from his party post soon and from the presidency early next year.

But Jiang has no intention of fading from the scene. Once derided as a marginal and transitional figure, he has skillfully made sure that he'll exert major influence over China's foreign and economic policies, perhaps for years to come. At least three of Jiang's protégés will likely be promoted to key posts by the Congress, putting them in a position to advance his agenda. Above all, Jiang aims to remain a powerful presence as a party elder after his retirement, much as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping did until his death in 1997. Jiang is so confident of his stature that he may even give up a post analysts had long expected he would keep: the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. (Deng held that job for two years after retiring from other party posts.) "Jiang wants to appear more modern than Mao or Deng," says an editor with a Beijing political journal. "Giving up all his positions makes him appear a great man in China's history."

If Jiang does quit them, his key supporters in the all-powerful, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee will play a vital role in maintaining his influence. On Oct. 22, state media announced that Shanghai Party Secretary Huang Ju, 64, and Beijing Party Secretary Jia Qinglin, 62, would soon take jobs in the central government. At least one of them--probably Huang--is expected to be promoted to the Standing Committee. Meanwhile, on Oct. 24, 63-year-old Zeng Qinghong stepped down from his job as head of the party's Organization Dept. This is also seen as a signal that he soon will join the top echelon of leadership, analysts say.

Zeng, Huang, and Jia have all worked closely with Jiang. Zeng, the only official from Shanghai whom Jiang brought with him to Beijing in 1989, is the President's closest aide. Jiang chose Jia to take over as Beijing's mayor in 1996 after his predecessor was arrested on corruption charges. Jia may be beholden to Jiang because of rumors that Jia's wife was involved in a smuggling scandal. A corruption crackdown has netted officials with ties to top leaders such as Li Peng, but no one close to Jiang has been implicated.

On the policy front, Jiang's continued influence is likely to spell a stable transition. Leaders in Beijing broadly agree that China must continue its economic opening. Hu, known as a consensus builder, is unlikely to challenge Jiang openly. "Hu will try to make this as seamless a transition as he can," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan. Hu can be expected to heed Jiang's advice on foreign policy, an area where he has little experience. Jiang, who recently enjoyed a visit to President George W. Bush's Texas ranch, is likely to keep pushing for better ties with the U.S. and a softer line on Taiwan.

Of course, any transition of power can turn up surprises. And no one really knows how the new crowd of sixtysomethings will interact with each other--and with Jiang--until they assume their new posts. For example, one longtime rival, Li Ruihuan, 68, may try to limit Jiang's protégés' influence if he keeps his position on the Standing Committee. But for now, Jiang--China's aspiring new paramount leader--seems to have stacked the deck strongly in his own favor.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

Edited by Rose Brady

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