BEIJING — Even after former Shanghai Mayor Jiang Zemin was given the top position in the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, few people took him seriously as the man who would eventually replace Deng Xiaoping as the real power in China.
Since then, Jiang has added two more important posts: president of China and chairman of the influential Military Affairs Commission.
In addition, he has stacked the Central Committee of the Communist Party with friends and cronies from his days in Shanghai. Recently, he even posed for a poster that shows him standing reverently--some might say looming hopefully--behind Deng, who is leaning on a cane.
But even after six busy years building his power base, polishing his credentials and waiting for Deng Xiaoping, China's 90-year-old paramount leader, to die, Jiang is still not taken seriously as the successor to the pinnacle of power.
The reason: China's rite of succession is a very tricky business, conducted almost completely offstage by players who often hold no formal position in state or party.
That is why many people today give National People's Congress Chairman Qiao Shi or Zhu Rongji, his comrade on the reformist Politburo, at least an outside chance of winning the leadership sweepstakes in China. Even aging, disgraced former party leader Zhao Ziyang, the reformer who took the fall for the 1989 demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, cannot be ruled out.
Behind the scenes, players such as Yang Shangkun, the former president and military leader, and former Politburo members Wan Li and Bo Yibo--although all retired--are certain to be key powerbrokers in choosing China's new senior or paramount leader, the "red emperor."
With new rumors of Deng's rapidly failing health surfacing every day here in the capital, talk of succession has become one of the main topics of conversation.
Here are some guides to remember when handicapping the succession battle likely to follow Deng's death:
* Titles mean almost nothing. Deng Xiaoping was a mere vice premier when he took over as China's top leader in 1979. For the past six years his only title has been Most Honorary Chairman of the All China Bridge Assn.
* Being designated as the handpicked successor can be more of a curse than a benefit. Hapless Hua Guofeng, the man anointed successor by the late Mao Tse-tung with the words "with you in charge, I'm at ease," lasted little more than two years before being unceremoniously dumped.
* "Retired" leaders never really retire. Deng officially retired in 1989. But in 1992 he accelerated economic reforms in China with a trip to South China and a series of speeches. In addition to Deng, there are six other "senior leaders," ranging in age from 79 to 92, who still have a say in who rules here.
* There is little respect left for the dead leader. While Mao was alive, it was suicidal to criticize him. But Deng made his move by attacking the excesses of Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. China's next leader may attempt to distance himself from Deng.
* The death of a leader is followed by a review of recent history, assessment of blame and a healing period of rehabilitation. After Mao died, the infamous "Gang of Four," including Mao's wife, was arrested for its crimes during the Cultural Revolution.
* Provincial power bases count. Much of Deng's support came from old friends from his native Sichuan province. Likewise, Jiang Zemin has attempted to shore up his support by building what the Hong Kong newspapers call "The Shanghai Gang." Oddly, the country's most economically dynamic region, Guangdong province and the far south, has almost no clout, with only one representative, Xie Fei, on the 20-member Politburo.
* The key to power in China still lies with the People's Liberation Army. This was old warrior Deng's great strength. It is Jiang's principal weakness.
"I would expect China's post-Deng succession to be a three-stage process," commented UCLA political scientist Richard Baum, author of a recent book about Deng Xiaoping's years in power entitled "Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping" (Princeton University Press).
"The first stage will involve rallying 'round the flag by all members of the established leadership, who would quickly rally around Jiang Zemin as the designated 'core,' " he said.
"At this state, things would most likely appear smooth, cordial and politically correct on the surface, with everyone ostensibly trying to 'do the right thing.' "
Within a few weeks, however, cracks will begin to appear in the facade of unity, Baum predicted.
"In this second stage one would have to pay very close attention to the phrasing of newspaper editorials and leaders' speeches to pick up subtle cues and clues as to the emerging fault lines of factional cleavage."
Finally, the UCLA Sinologist said, the gloves will come off and "the new coalition will assert itself."