Fresh from a victory over political and military rivals, Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin is likely to move China toward broadened capitalism, but not democracy, as he steers the country into the next century.
At the close of a party congress that ended last Friday, Mr. Jiang emerged as the unquestioned head of the seven-man standing committee that will rule China until 2002.
Jiang, appointed to head the party by Deng Xiaoping on the eve of the Chinese Army's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, is proving to be in many ways a clone of his mentor. Like Deng, Jiang strongly supports transforming China's Soviet-model economy along the lines of a Western-style, free-market system, but opposes introducing open competition in the political realm.
Seven months following his mentor's passing, Jiang has apparently inherited Deng's knack for winning the secretive, Darwinist power struggles that govern life at the top of the party pyramid.
During closed-door meetings in Beijing several days ago, Jiang succeeded in purging Qiao Shi, the reform-minded head of China's parliament who held the No. 3 spot in the party, from the all-powerful standing committee.
"Jiang Zemin has long feared Qiao Shi's popularity within the moderate wing of the party, and Qiao's removal is a great step backward for the forces of political reform," says a Chinese scholar with high-level government contacts.
Mr. Qiao frequently made statements about replacing the rule of man with rule by law in China, and headed a drive to make the National People's Congress the ultimate source of state power.
"Qiao Shi was the only voice for [political] liberalization at the top of the leadership, and many party members believe that Jiang conspired with [Premier] Li Peng to oust Qiao," adds the scholar.
"The fact that the popular Qiao was purged while Li Peng, one of the most disliked figures in China, has held onto power reflects how undemocratic party politics are," he says. Mr. Li, who must retire as premier next March, is now slated to take over as China's top legislator.
He signed the decree that sent troops into Beijing in 1989, and a small cabal of elite revolutionary elders, rather than ordinary party members or civilians, forms his main base of political support.
Li was enraged by an appeal sent to leaders of the party congress asking for an official reassessment of the military's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, says a government official who asked not to be identified.
The letter, reported to be written by former party chief Zhao Ziyang, said, "The June 4th incident shocked the world ... and the passage of time will not make the people forget it."
"Of course there is no way to positively authenticate the letter, but it very closely reflects Zhao Ziyang's thinking and writing style," says a former adviser to Zhao.
When Mr. Zhao opposed the use of troops to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989, he was replaced by Jiang Zemin and placed under house arrest on charges of "splitting the party."
Even today, Zhao remains a virtual prisoner of Jiang's, and if he did pen the appeal, it would be interpreted as a outrageous act of defiance against China's present leaders. "If the leaders who ordered the Army into Beijing in 1989, rather than the demonstrators, are judged to be the 'Black Hands' behind the Tiananmen incident, that would implicate Li Peng and other figures who are still in power," the official says.
"If dialogue rather than bloody conflict had been employed with the students, the party could have begun building a new channel of communication with the people on the road toward political reform," the appeal allegedly sent from Zhao says.
Yet Jiang's new alliance with Premier Li and the ouster of several key reformers, including the head of the Supreme Court, from the central committee seem designed to silence voices for political change.
While Jiang stunned the country by outlining a sweeping plan to release party control over most of China's state enterprises, he has consistently clamped down on any challenges to the party's rule.
"Jiang's plan to privatize many state firms is certain to worsen already widespread unemployment, and unrest among laid-off workers is one of his greatest concerns," the intellectual says.
"Jiang is afraid that the chaos triggered by massive economic changes, if matched by a simultaneous political liberalization, could lead to the collapse of the party, just as in the Soviet Union," he adds.
Jiang can also ill afford to alienate top military brass by backing a rapid reversal of the official history of Tiananmen, say both Chinese and American scholars.
Jiang last week had himself reappointed as head of the party's military commission and removed his chief rival, Gen. Liu Huaqing, from the party's standing committee.
Yet unlike the revolutionary veterans who preceded him, Jiang never fought in the Chinese civil war, and his ties with the Army remain the weakest link in his rule.