Jockeying, speculation begin over who will rule China

Initial conclaves held, as next year's leadership transition looms.

In this coastal town, where party apparatchiks escape sweltering Beijing each August, the political heat is on.

Quietly, decisions about who will run the world's most populous nation are being made.

Next year, communist China's leadership is expected to undergo dramatic change - to a "fourth generation" of rulers, China's "baby boomers," whose political and formative experiences were shaped by the bitter 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

As the black sedans glide into guarded villas where conclaves are being held here, the cicadas buzz and the question looms: Will China's transition go smoothly, or will struggles among the old guard destabilize a party worried about its legitimacy?

In this country of 1.3 billion, whose size and economic dynamism increasingly make it the dominant force in Asia, no clear rules govern succession. Rather, new leaders emerge by elaborate agreement, made in strict secrecy by a set of elder cadres.

After Chairman Mao's 27-year tenure, a consensus emerged against such long terms in power.

The new leadership is expected to be announced after the 16th Communist Party Congress convenes next year.

"What's happening in Beidaihe is 'the meeting before the meeting,' " says one Chinese official. "A lot is being decided."

By some estimates, more than half of China's top spots will change under a rule that, according to one official, "strongly suggests" that 70 is a retirement age. This includes the senior governing bodies: the all-powerful seven-member Standing Committee, the 17-member Politburo, and the policy-setting 235-member Communist Party Congress.

By all accounts, President Jiang Zemin will likely step down next year.

Mr. Jiang's successor seems certain to be the relatively youthful Vice President Hu Jintao. Mr. Hu, who has a reputation for being uncorrupted, went from being deputy construction chief in humble Gansu province to being tapped for high office in 1992 by revered reformer Deng Xiaoping, who once famously said: "Hu is not bad."

Hu has stayed out of the public eye for more than a decade and is virtually unknown outside party circles. Western observers say much depends on how quickly he can emerge from the shroud imposed on heir apparents and consolidate power within the top echelons.

The air is thick with schemes, and counterschemes, and speculation.

"I might make a guess two days before the [February] Congress, but even that is a guess," says a professor at Beijing University.

Two main questions surround China's succession: First, what role behind the scenes will current leader Jiang seek for himself?

Second, who will be on the Standing Committee? This is the body of seven leaders, who also hold roles such as premier or president, and govern China by consensus through votes on what amounts to an executive board.

Jiang, first considered in 1992 to be a transitional figure, has proved his staying power as a political coalition builder. He is known to seek a role like that of Deng, his predecessor, who ruled China "behind the curtain," as the phrase goes, until nearly 1998.

Jiang, the "third generation" leader, would like his legacy to enter the pantheon of modern China along with Mao and Deng.

Jiang is known to want to retain his post as head of the powerful Central Military Commission, and to have access, directly or indirectly, to the Standing Committee. Party organs are emphasizing Jiang's theoretical contribution to Chinese political thought, known as Jiang's "Three Represents." The concepts are an effort to make the party connect more with the people in the midst of market reforms, and to make Jiang the central architect of that new alignment. (Mao and Deng both left socio-political theories widely studied by Chinese students.)

How Jiang maneuvers to retain power behind the throne will determine the difficulty of Hu's task, experts say. Jiang is known last year to have tested the waters for another term, an idea that proved untenable.

It has now emerged that he hopes to elevate his protége Zeng Quinghong. Mr. Zeng lacks a political base, but is aggressive and has been at the controls of a powerful organizational committee that gives him influence with party members. Zeng, however, was denied full Politburo membership last year, in a move seen as a rebuke to his mentor.

"Zeng is a powerful figure and cannot be underestimated," says one European diplomat. "If he makes it to vice president [one rumor], it will be quite a tussle between him and Hu."

As for the Standing Committee: Jiang has balanced liberal reformers and hardline ideological leftist forces on the body. Five members, including Jiang, are older than 70.

One of them, the high-profile Li Peng, known for his hardline positions and his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, has lobbied hard to stay on the Standing Committee, or to take a job like State President. Should Mr. Li do so, Premier Zhu Rongji, a liberal, also over 70, may feel compelled to stay as a counterbalance to Mr. Li, and to protect his legacy of major contributions to market reform in China.

Should the old guard stay, Hu might well be neutralized, sources say. Also, the transition to a next generation could well be stymied - down to positions at the provincial level.

"If Jiang doesn't play this properly, you don't have a clear transition to the fourth generation," and that creates unhappiness and "weakens the Party," says one Western observer.

"So much depends on Hu," says one Western diplomat. "He has spent a decade protecting himself as the heir apparent, and, like a vice-president, he's not been able to fully step out of the shadows and be his own man."

Premier Zhu announced early this summer that he would not retain his position as nominal dean of the prestigious Tsinghua School of Management. The speech was regarded as an important symbolic "hint" to the elite about the importance of retirement - to allow a new generation to move up.

Despite being credited with recent successes, like winning the 2008 Olympic Games for Beijing and gaining WTO accession for China, Jiang's own position is uncertain. In recent weeks he has been attacked by leftists for a speech in which he invited private entrepreneurs into the party.

Unlike previous eras, in which China's leaders were revolutionary figures, the ruling elite rule more today by pragmatic consensus. Jiang, unlike Mao and Deng, is a member of the so-called "third generation," and does not have revolutionary credentials. This opens him to some attack by patriots and ideologues, who say he is "out of touch" with the people and the problems facing China's rising number of unemployed workers.

"Someone will remove the hammer and sickle from the party flag, and replace it with a computer and a satellite," wrote a leading leftist named Deng Liqun, in a widely circulated critique.

Yet by shutting down two leftist journals in the past month and by creating a set of "seven forbidden criticisms" that editorialists must observe - Jiang may well have blocked attacks from a left that is shrinking in numbers and influence.

In October, Jiang plays host both to US President George Bush, and to an international economic forum in Shanghai, which will give him great national prominence as the succession struggle unfolds. "Unlike the debates in the previous decade," one longtime China-watcher says, "the issues this year are not about ideological decisions that will determine what way China goes. They are all about who is in power, and who stays in power."

Next: a look at the fourth generation.

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