If all goes according to plan, Jiang Zemin, leader of China for the past decade, will step down at the end of the Chinese Communist Party congress in November. His expected succesor, Hu Jintao, is a very different man. But speculation is rife that Mr. Jiang will try to hang on to at leastsome of the positions he now holds.
Jiang must decide whether to become the Leonid Brezhnev of China or its George Washington, suggests Cheng Li, a Hamilton College professor and author of "China's Leaders: The New Generation."
While opinion among China watchers is divided, they all cite a complete lack of leaks, so far, from Jiang's inner circle. Mr. Li and other experts agree that Jiang is more likely to step down completely like a George Washington, setting a precedent for his successors than to cling to power for the rest of his natural life, as Brezhnev did.
In Moscow, Brezhnev managed to topple the reforming but erratic Khrushchev in 1964, and then presided for 17 years over the decline of the Soviet Union.
In China, Deng Xiaoping took a very different path. Having experienced the 10-year chaos of the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong, Mr. Deng was determined not only to revive China's economy but to create enduring institutions that would ensure an orderly line of succession. To this end, not only did he never formally assume the leadership of the state or of the party, but he progressively shed himself of the key positions he did occupy, so that when he died in 1997 he was only the president of China's Bridge Association the game, not the structure.
Jiang, who had been Communist party leader in Shanghai, was handpicked by Deng in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 to take over as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party. He also was awarded other key posts notably the chairmanship of the powerful Central Military Commission.
There is speculation that he may try to hang on to this particular position, because his mentor, Deng, did the same for a number of years after giving up other state and party posts.
But Jiang is no Deng Xiaoping. Deng retained nationwide prestige whatever his formal title. Jiang took all the formal positions he could assume, from being the Politburo's No. 1 to the nation's president.
However, Jiang has real achievements to his credit. While taking a hard line on crushing protests of all kinds, from political dissidents to the religious Falun Gong, he has continued and expanded Deng's policy of economic openness. China today is vastly more prosperous than when Jiang took over. It has a burgeoning middle class that has acquired an interest in maintaining economic and political stability. Jiang has also raised China's international profile, and assiduously tended relations with the US, so that Washington will probably be sorry to see him leave.
His likely successor, Mr. Hu, has been groomed for leadership since 1992, when Deng promoted him into the Politburo. But Hu has been so careful to avoid being seen as a potential challenger to Jiang, that his own position on a host of issues whether political or economic is one of China's best-kept secrets. Nevertheless, there are differences in background between Jiang and Hu that may be telling.
Jiang's power base is Shanghai, the New York of China, rich, sophisticated, internationally connected. And his network is strongest in the rich coastal provinces where development has been rapid. But Hu, who came up through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, has worked in China's poorest inland provinces Gansu, Guizhou, and Tibet, where development lags and resentment over the disparity with Shanghai, Canton, Tianjin and other coastal regions grows. And Hu's likely prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has a similar background and similar concerns.
Despite Hu's silence so far, a Hu-centered leadership would raise the question of whether major shifts are in the offing to create a more equal balance between rich cities where conspicuous consumption flourishes and villages that remain desperately poor. While no China-watcher will speculate that far, there is expectancy in the air as a new generation of leaders prepares to take over.
Takashi Oka is a former Monitor correspondent in Beijing and Moscow.