BEIJING — Somewhere within the vermilion-walled, maze-like leadership compound here called Zhongnanhai, a solitary figure is slowly but persistently reviewing his English vocabulary.
To immerse himself in the subject, he watches black-and-white American films, listens to musicals that have long exited Broadway's stages, and rereads a "greatest hits" list of speeches by former US presidents.
Although the part-time student is preparing to travel to the US, he is not one of the thousands of Chinese who are applying to enter an American university next fall.
Rather, he is Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party chief and president of the globe's most populous nation, and he is prepping himself to meet the head of the world's last superpower.
Both Zhongnanhai, the party's headquarters, and Mr. Jiang, its central figure, are surrounded by endless walls of secrecy.
But snippets of information that seep through cracks in Zhongnanhai's walls portray a leader whose patient, methodical manner has helped him survive the power struggles that have destroyed his predecessors.
The same tactics may help Jiang establish a new rapport with President Clinton and a cynical American public during his Oct. 26 to Nov. 2 visit to the US, say some Chinese analysts here.
Jiang's contacts with Western culture date back to his childhood, when he is believed to have attended a school in Shanghai run by American missionaries, says a senior US Embassy official here.
"Jiang Zemin has read a great deal of American history ... [and] can recite the Gettysburg Address," says the embassy official.
In the past months, Jiang has held a string of meetings with US congressional leaders and Cabinet officials, and is "working on his English in preparation for this trip," he adds.
"He is an excellent politician in some ways," says the official. "He reminds me of the [US] Speaker of the House [Newt Gingrich]."
A party man
Yet despite his brushes with American culture, Jiang is much more steeped in the Communist traditions of China and the former Soviet Union.
Ten years after joining the party in 1946, Jiang trained at the Stalin Automobile Factory in Moscow.
He returned to China to work his way up through the party's bureaucracy. As a technocrat who rarely questioned the status quo, his rise was slow but sure.
A decade ago, as mayor of Shanghai, it is likely that Jiang himself could not have imagined that one day he would lead the 50-million-member Communist Party.
But the pro-democracy protests that swept across China in 1989, and the military crackdown that ended them, helped catapult Jiang into his present post.
"Jiang gained the limelight in the spring of 1989 by closing down a liberal newspaper in Shanghai, the World Economic Herald, and backing party conservatives who wanted to use forceful measures to end pro-democracy protests" that were spreading like wildfire through Chinese cities and campuses, says another Western diplomat.
When then-party chief Zhao Ziyang opposed using the Army to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square in May 1989, supreme leader Deng Xiaoping quickly summoned Jiang from Shanghai to take Mr. Zhao's place.
"Although Jiang did not have a vote in the decision to call martial law troops into Beijing, he [later] headed the massive propaganda drive describing the crackdown as the largely bloodless suppression of a counterrevolutionary rebellion," adds the Western diplomat.
In the eight years since the Tiananmen attack, Jiang has carefully placed protgs in key positions in the party and Army while warding off calls to reverse the party's official judgment on the crackdown.
When former party chief Zhao wrote an appeal during a Communist congress last month for the party to issue an official apology for the 1989 crackdown, Jiang and his co-rulers tightened Zhao's confinement under house arrest and cut his telephone line.
"Zhao Ziyang remains much more popular than Jiang among those who support political reform in the party," says a Chinese intellectual with high-level government contacts.
"Yet by purging leading reformists during the congress, Jiang has seemed to emerge with his power strengthened," he adds.
Power has never been closely connected with popularity in China.
The party's closely guarded leadership complex at the center of Beijing is part of the Forbidden City, from which generations of Chinese emperors ruled the Middle Kingdom.
Just as imperial dynasties chiefly relied on the sword, symbolism, and rituals to rule, so has the party rarely sought the consent of the governed.
Yet even that tradition may be changing following the February death of supreme leader Deng.
"China's economic reforms and integration with the global community are creating new interest groups and forces here that act as a check on the party's power," says a former aide to Zhao.
"With the diffusion of power, Jiang Zemin can never hope to become an emperor in the sense that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were," he adds.
In the months since Deng's passing, Jiang has continued his mentor's policy of transforming China's economy into a Western-style market system while maintaining Soviet-model rule.
Yet because Jiang has been a chameleon who adjusts with changes of the guard, some Chinese hope that he may someday evolve into a leader who seeks the mandate of the people rather than of the party.
Although Jiang has cautiously backed village-level elections that allow independents to run against party officials, he has rejected suggestions for province-wide or national polls.
His fears of subjecting the party and his own position to a vote may be misplaced.
"The party still has strong support in the countryside," where more than half of China's 1.2 billion citizens live, says a university lecturer in Beijing.
"China's economy has grown rapidly in the last eight years, personal freedoms have expanded, and Jiang has not done anything to alienate most city residents," he adds.
"Although he seems to be afraid of democracy, the ironic thing is that if a national vote were held tomorrow, Jiang Zemin would probably be elected president," says the lecturer.
A stake in Philly
Curiously, Jiang is slated to visit Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell during his seven-city tour of the US.
"Jiang himself put Philadelphia on his schedule," says the senior American Embassy official.
Both US and Chinese analysts are wondering whether the decision to visit the cradle of American democracy was made by Jiang the chameleon or by Jiang the potential reformist.
"Footage of Jiang's trip will be beamed back to China," says the Western diplomat. "So it's hard to determine whether the Liberty Bell stop is [public relations] for American viewers or a deeper signal to the Chinese people."