BEIJING — For Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Tuesday's summit with President Clinton in New York is the latest rite of passage in his quest to replace 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping at the helm of Chinese power.
Like the labors of Hercules, Jiang must meet a series of tests to stake his claim as the true leader of China's 1.2 billion people.
Jiang demonstrated a convincing mastery of the most important challenge--control of the military--last month when he appointed two of his strongest supporters to the powerful Central Military Commission. He followed it up last week by presiding over an impressive display of Chinese naval strength that included landings on beaches and missile firings.
Institutionally, he already owns the three top titles in the Chinese hierarchy--the posts of president, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
In what many viewed as his first serious attempt to create a body of "Jiang Zemin Thought," the 69-year-old Jiangsu province native with a penchant for opera and poetry delivered his most important speech at the recent plenary meeting of the Communist Party in Beijing. In the 10,000-word address, Jiang borrowed from the text of a famous speech by the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung about the "10 Major Relationships" and upped the political ante by describing what he called the "12 Major Relationships." For the first time ever, his words were splashed all over the front page of the People's Daily.
Finally, he spent much of the past year aligning himself with the "white hats" in the continuing struggle against corruption inside the Communist Party.
The anti-corruption drive culminated at the party plenum with the formal expulsion of the highest-ranking Communist leader ever to fall for corrupt practices: Politburo member Chen Xitong, a former mayor of Beijing, was stripped of all party posts for his involvement in a $23-million kickback scandal in the Chinese capital.
In the view of many scholars, though, Jiang still needs to be taken seriously on the world stage. Hence, Clinton and the New York summit.
"The biggest issue with Jiang," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a University of Michigan professor and specialist on Chinese domestic politics, "is that he wants to be treated with respect."
The Chinese--seeking compensation for the injury they felt when the Clinton Administration broke with decades of policy and allowed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit Upstate New York in the spring--would have preferred a full-blown state visit to Washington with an exchange of formal dinners and a 21-gun salute.
But Clinton, elected after a campaign in which he razzed then-President George Bush for "coddling the butchers of Beijing," is not prepared to take a step that would provoke a Republican Congress that is generally hostile to the Beijing regime.
Instead, ensconced in suites at the Plaza Hotel, Jiang and his backers will settle for the New York parley that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
At first, the Americans offered a 45-minute session as one in a series of meetings with world leaders scheduled for Clinton on the occasion of the U.N. anniversary. Then the time was expanded to 1 1/2 hours, about the minimum for a meeting to still be called a "summit."
The meeting, tentatively scheduled to take place at the New York Public Library, is still considered an important step in the long process of assuring Jiang's leadership. And if pre-summit interviews granted to several foreign news organizations are any indication, Jiang is expected to sternly lecture Clinton about the Taiwan "mistake."
When Deng first named Jiang as his successor in 1989, few people took the former Shanghai mayor seriously.
In Shanghai, he was known by the nickname "Flowerpot" because of his willingness to attend and pose at an endless series of ceremonial openings.
In fact, the factor that has probably helped Jiang most is Deng's own stubborn refusal to die, despite years of extremely bad health, brought on by age and a lifetime of chain smoking.
This has given Jiang, a relative political unknown, the time he has needed to build his base.
Still, not everyone is convinced that the support base will remain intact after Deng dies.
"Jiang looks solid right now," commented Andrew J. Nathan, a China expert at Columbia University, "but when Deng finally crosses that increasingly metaphysical line between living and unliving, it's possible that Jiang's carefully built structure will crumble and turn out to have been made of balsa wood."