BEIJING — For more than a year, China has been preparing for a change of leadership, a shift to a younger "Fourth Generation" of leaders that would mark the first orderly, institutionalized succession by any communist country.
It would mean, in China, an evolution from rule by a small cadre of family groups and cult personalities to something akin to regular rotation in office, and a clear, procedural pathway for future changes and reforms.
But now there are indications that top leader Jiang Zemin may be having second thoughts. Reading China's political tea leaves is never easy. But several events and a steady drumbeat of rumors indicate the transition may be moving away from the assumed script.
For the first time in memory, the elite party cadre are not taking their annual secret conference/holiday by the sea in August. It has been fast-forwarded to this week.
And, in an unprecedented front page editorial this month in the People's Liberation Army Daily, Mr. Jiang was five times lauded as the "core" of China's leadership.
The question is starting to flow thick and fast in the Middle Kingdom capital: Will Jiang really step down?
Until now the generally accepted transition script was that Jiang will hand over his posts to Vice President Hu Jintao. In Party lore, Mr. Hu was chosen by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to succeed Jiang, whose remarkable staying power dates to 1989.
Jiang and his peers, including hardliner Li Peng and Premier Zhu Rongji, come from a "Third Generation" of leaders. These elders have delivered economic dynamism on the mainland, but also carry the taint of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and a decade of denying any responsibility for it.
How smoothly the shift goes bears greatly on a central issue in top circles here, insiders say: the ongoing legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. At a basic level, a smooth transition will free Beijing from an inward-gazing power struggle that has consumed China for more than a year, and made many official decisions seem temporary in a country that prizes stability.
"China has for too long been a government of men rather than a government of laws. The regular, periodic, peaceful replacement of elites would contribute to ... constitutional-legal norms in Chinese politics," argues Richard Baum, a China expert at UCLA. "Hu Jintao and others of the 'Fourth Generation' are untainted by Tiananmen... which might ... enable them to take more decisive action...."
But in numerous venues speeches, conferences, editorials, state visits, and personal meetings Jiang has not appeared ready to leave. On the contrary, his recent contribution to Chinese Marxist thought, a theory known as "Three Represents," has been so lionized that some analysts feel he is being sold as indispensable to the running of the country. This media push may also be a prelude to an announcement that China's global situation is so delicate that Jiang is needed as a firm and experienced hand.
"Three Represents," or "San Ge Dai Biao," is an attempt to harmonize Marxism with China's new culture of free markets, private businessmen, and "advanced" sectors of society like technology. Recent newspaper features recount model workers who love Jiang. An 83-year-old retiree who volunteers to clean windows on public buildings was asked what he treasured most about China. The answer: "San Ge Dai Biao!"
Top China hands in the West are stumped, with views all over the spectrum. One school believes the transition is something so logical and predetermined that no one person, even Jiang, can derail it. Others feel that Jiang is "not the resigning type," and that he will not stand by while others pick up his mantle.
"Those who feel like the [transition] should stick point out that nothing has taken place that changes the picture," argues Andrew Nathan, a China expert at Columbia University. "The new generation is ready to take over, they have experience, they are not all that young themselves. There is no crisis of a sort that only Jiang can handle."
But to another school, that view ignores the human factor. "Will staying on help the legitimacy of the party? That will be the main question," says one senior Beijing-based diplomat. "If he does stay, what explanation will be given? I can only think of one ambition."
The concern over Jiang staying on is that it would create confusion, divided power centers, the potential of conflicting policies, and delay and frustration among younger leaders. Yet whether Hu has been able to consolidate power and to bring reassurance and gravitas, is unclear. China's new free markets have brought new wealth, but also a huge new class of unemployed and poor migrant workers. China is entering deep and uncharted waters, and needs a steady hand, Jiang supporters say.
"I think they can easily find an explanation for him [Jiang] to stay," says one scholar in Beijing, speaking without attribution. "But to keep up with the international world, we need younger leaders. To have the same leader year after year is no good."
The basic transition script is based on Jiang's earlier statements and a new rule that senior leaders must retire by age 70. Also changing is the makeup of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Five of the seven members are expected to leave, including Mr. Li and economic wizard Mr. Zhu. Some 22 of 35 senior Politburo members would phase out.
Most China watchers feel a core of three will make up the Standing Committee Hu, Jiang protégé Zeng Qinhong, and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao. But what executive positions will turn over is cloudy.
Jiang holds three top spots. He is General Secretary of the Communist Party, head of the Army's Central Military Commission, and president of the State. Jiang has been rumored for years to want to retain the powerful Army post. He's now regarded as angling to stay as General Secretary.
Some reports say two new "deputy" positions are being created, with Hu becoming a deputy General Secretary. Moreover, if Jiang stays, it's widely felt that old guard member Li, a major power center, will also want a top slot.
Jiang may convene a press conference this week following discussions at the summer resort, Beidaihe. If not, the outcome should be clearer by the end of the 16th Party Congress in September or October.