China has new chief, but power may lie elsewhere

Hu Jintao took party helm this weekend. But Zeng Qinghong may be the man to watch.

China's nine new leaders briefly stepped forward for the world press when introduced by Hu Jintao, China's new Communist Party chief, last week. But one man, Zeng Qinghong, seemed to linger in the spotlight. With four members of the all-powerful Standing Committee shoulder to shoulder on either side of him, Mr. Zeng was literally the man in the middle.

Zeng's central spot is a triumph for outgoing president Jiang Zemin, pleased to have his savvy chief aide rise so high. But Zeng also represents a real challenge to new top leader, Mr. Hu.

Hu, fresh-faced and accomplished, but hamstrung by Chinese protocol as a former No. 2, was unable to appoint many allies. Indeed, China has a sweeping set of young leaders, but in the intrigues of Beijing, the wholesale turnover at the top appears more a ratification of Mr. Jiang's 13-year hold on power. Jiang, who retains a crucial military post that figures strongly in foreign affairs, is more influential now than when he stepped down last Thursday, some analysts say. No single figure symbolizes this more than the colorful Zeng.

A former missile technician whose ethnic Hakka parents were prominent Mao revolutionaries, Zeng is a power-broker par excellence. As Jiang's right-hand man in Shanghai, he kept that city quiet during the 1989 Tiananmen upheavals - one reason Jiang ascended to the throne. For years, Zeng has battled Jiang's enemies behind the scenes and accepted experiments like village elections and allowing entrepreneurs to join the party. A year ago, Jiang could not get Zeng onto the Politburo. Now, one of the nine, and in charge of the influential Secretariat, Zeng is at the center of Jiang's continuing rule here.

Zeng travels in a fabulously rare slipstream of Chinese power politics, moving adroitly, seemingly unconstrained by protocol. Though he holds no official foreign- policy brief, he made key trips to the US and North Korea, and dealt with Taiwan. He engineered research reports - on subjects like flagging party loyalty among the masses, the Uighur Muslims in the northwest, and poverty - that would have ended the careers of others. He was seen with Jiang at plant openings, cultural events, and major speeches. Zeng also helped establish a new party discourse called "Three Represents" - a move that made a shift from Marxist rhetoric toward free enterprise acceptable in party circles.

In 1997, as US relations ebbed after China sent missiles into the Taiwan Strait, Zeng went to Washington for special talks as Jiang's "chief of staff," a higher status than co-envoy Qian Qichen. A Clinton administration official remembers: "It was winter, and we sat by the fire in a Virginia country mansion, talked for five hours or more, and reshaped US-China relations. Clinton went to China later that summer. We didn't know Zeng before the trip. He wasn't what we expected. He was modern, talkative, relaxed. Afterwards we all said, 'He is a man to watch.' "

"The successful 16th Congress is Zeng's contribution," says a Beijing magazine editor. "He was the main planner and organizer. He is lively, laughs a lot, but is known for getting the job done."

For Zeng, the leadership transition is a boon. Six of the seven previous Standing Committee members are gone, including stalwarts like Zhu Rongji and Li Peng. The new men will continue China's economic reforms but won't pursue political reforms that could test China's stability and cut into party authority.

The first meeting of the new Politburo stressed unity. Each Standing Committee member made state media appearances in different venues, shaking hands with a peasant, meeting a factory worker, holding a baby, making a pitch for clean environment, and greeting a foreign dignitary.

Each of these new Fourth Generation leaders studied engineering. Their formative years spanned the traumatic Cultural Revolution; most owe allegiance to Jiang or Zeng for promotion. Indeed, though the Standing Committee expanded to nine from seven, it is difficult to see who in the lineup can be counted as a true-blue ally of new chief Hu.

The key dynamics in coming months will likely be among Wen Jiabao, Zeng, and Hu. Zeng has engaged in the hurly burly of daily politics in a way Hu has been unable to. Such activity, however, has made Zeng controversial and a bit unpopular in the party, one reason the outgoing old guard never voted him onto the Politburo. Zeng is sometimes called a "hatchet man" for Jiang. Unlike his colleagues, Zeng has never run a province, never been a mayor, never had to work his way up the hard way.

Some years ago, party members took a "purification" retreat in a program known as "Three Stresses." They were asked to write down various faults as part of an old-style communist self-confession. As head of the Party Organization Department, Zeng holds those files - giving him ammunition against his seniors.

"Zeng has always been an inside party manipulator, which is why a lot of people don't like him," one diplomat says. "There is a big difference between being the henchman and being the boss. We will have to see how Zeng fares."

At the same time, Zeng is open to new talent. "He carries a notebook," says one party member, "and when he meets an interesting person he writes down the name. It became known if your name was in Zeng's notebook, you had a future."

Zeng was born in 1939 in Jian, Jiangxi Province, a Mao stronghold. His father was a guerrilla leader in the 1920s; his mother is one of the 35 female veterans of the "Long March," Mao's famous retreat in 1934-35. The father carried out brutal purges of anti-Mao elements. In 1952, the elder Zeng headed the then-named Bureau of Internal Affairs, a secret police department. He was briefly deputy mayor of Shanghai and was close to mayor Chen Yi, one of the 10 grand marshals of China. Zeng later made use of those connections to meet Jiang.

Such credentials also made Zeng a "princeling." During the Cultural Revolution, Zeng was sent to do manual labor at a special camp for offspring of the elite. He was educated at the Beijing Institute of Technology, a school that fed China's military; he served on a missile unit in the early 1960s. Despite a revolutionary background, Zeng is considered a pragmatist who will change with the times. "He is not a real reformer, even," says a knowledgeable Chinese insider. "He is a politician. If being for democracy is in vogue, he is for democracy. If he was asked to support orthodox communism, he'd be the best at it."

With Zeng, Jiang is more solidly ensconced. Like his predecessor, the beloved Deng Xiaoping, Jiang will head the Central Military Commission, despite retiring. But that is where the comparison in many ways ends. For starters, Jiang took over from Deng after Tiananmen, when the country was wounded, the government was divided between reformers and central planners, and the military was seeking an active role in politics. During that time, Deng actively supported Jiang, who had no power base, in order to guide China through a tumult.

Yet today, China has no deep political divisions, Tiananmen is mainly airbrushed out of memory, and the military is effectively out of power.

Hu is also weak, as Jiang was in '89. "Jiang had no power, but Deng helped him," says one senior expert in Beijing. "Jiang, though, is not supporting his successor, Hu. That's the difference."

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