BEIJING — Deng Xiaoping's passing on Wednesday has focused worldwide attention on the historic changes he wrought in the world's most populous nation over two decades.
But no reform of Deng's may be more challenged in the months and perhaps years ahead than the collective leadership and diffused power he left behind.
By naming Jiang Zemin as successor seven years ago, he tried to prevent the kind of in-fighting and jailing or death of losers that marked nearly every previous changing of the guard in China's Communist Party.
And his success in setting an irreversible course toward a market economy and integrating China with the world has left his successors with little room to maneuver for power or to alter China's path.
Still, the world waits to see whether a struggle breaks out in Beijing. Many China watchers discount notions that competition for influence could cause national disintegration or upset crucial ties with the US, Japan, or other key nations.
"There are always dangers involved in Chinese transitions of power," says Ezra Vogel, a China scholar at Harvard University. "But the likelihood of doomsday in post-Deng China is small."
Diplomats in Beijing agree. "Our government doesn't foresee instability in China," says Igor Rogachev, Russian ambassador to China.
"As important as Deng has been, we believe that China will survive," says a Western diplomat.
On the surface, the top rulers of the secretive party appear united, at least in their goals of maintaining China's dynamic economic growth and its role as a rising world power.
Although inner-party machinations may be under way, Deng's transformation of China's economy has been so successful that ordinary citizens care little about politics.
"When Mao died [in 1976], most of the nation halted, pondered, and cried," said a white-collar worker in Beijing. "But few of us have time to reminisce about the wider meanings of Deng's life and death," he said. "We're too busy making money."
Any leadership power struggle would not be as important now as during the great ideological battles in China's past, says Huang Yasheng, a political science expert at the University of Michigan. "Most of the current contenders for power are cut from the same cloth, so the success of any individual will not greatly change China's fate."
Jiang Zemin, a former mayor of Shanghai, appears to have consolidated his rule, and now carries the triple titles of president, party general secretary, and commander in chief. Yet his long-time position as Deng's apparent heir has been accompanied by a sense of foreboding in China. Few so anointed have managed to hold onto the crown for long. The precedents are many:
* Liu Shaoqi, ranked second behind Mao in the party hierarchy in the 1960s, died in prison after being tortured by Mao's Red Guards during the violent, 1965-75 Cultural Revolution.
* Lin Biao, who engineered Mao's personality cult and was called his closest comrade-in-arms, died in a mysterious airplane crash after allegedly plotting a coup against the chairman.
* Jiang Qing, Mao's wife and co-architect of the Cultural Revolution, lost her bid for power after Mao's death in 1976 when she was arrested in a palace coup before her armed militia could reach Beijing from Shanghai.
* Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, termed the "twin pillars of economic reform" by patriarch Deng in the early 1980s, fared only slightly better.
General Secretary Hu was stripped of power for refusing to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1987, and Mr. Zhao remains under house arrest seven years after opposing the use of troops to clear Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The presence of Zhao waiting in the wings is probably only one of Jiang Zemin's worries as he plots his strategy to hold the scepters of power.
"The main dynamics of the transition may be determined by how Jiang Zemin works out relations with his fellow rulers," Professor Vogel says.
Jiang has passed the first hurdle in the succession race by having himself appointed head of the all-important Deng Xiaoping funeral committee. But many fellow committee members, representing the innermost circle of power in post-Deng China, may be seen as Jiang's rivals.
They include Yang Shangkun, former vice-head of the Central Military Commission, who currently holds only honorary posts but has had decades of experience in Army leadership. Just as Jiang's formal trappings of power will not guarantee his political longevity, so Yang's lack of official posts will not preclude him from being a major power broker in the transition, says an American analyst. Although Jiang has placed protgs in key military positions, he is the first civilian to attempt to head China's People's Liberation Army.
Qiao Shi, head of China's National People's Congress and ranked third in the hierarchy, is a political chameleon with broad ties to both the conservative and liberal factions of the party.
Until recently, Mr. Qiao headed China's secret police and overseas intelligence operations, and is therefore likely to hold dossiers on not only dissidents, but also his fellow rulers. Qiao has called for making the People's Congress the ultimate source of state authority and replacing China's personality cults with rule by law.
"Qiao is seen as a more enlightened ruler by some intellectuals, and is more likely to galvanize the country in a new era of reform," says a Chinese scholar.
Zhu Rongji, the party's financial expert, is an advocate of economic reform and political conservatism, and is therefore the closest thing to a post-Deng Deng, say some Chinese analysts. "Jiang fears Zhu's ambitiousness," says a Chinese intellectual with high government contacts. "Although he admires Zhu's talent, Jiang Zemin wants to surround himself with figures he can manipulate rather than contend with.