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Chinese Find a Tempest in Political Tea Leaves

Asia: It's still anybody's guess whether President Jiang will stay or go, because the Communist Party's inner workings are shrouded in secrecy.


BEIJING — If drinking tea is China's favorite activity, then reading the leaves may come in second.

That propensity was on display last week after the ruling Communists finally announced, following much delay, that they would convene their party congress Nov. 8--a highly anticipated event that could see the first orderly turnover of power in modern Chinese history.

Instead of quashing all the political speculation triggered by the delay, setting the date has pushed the rumor mill here into overdrive.

Observers--who were already busy parsing every word out of Chinese officials' mouths, pondering their silences and poring over articles in the state-run media--next tried to divine the reason for the relatively late start of the congress, which is held once every five years.

Some deduced that President Jiang Zemin had succeeded in a last-minute backstage bid to stay on as party chief, rather than cede the spotlight as expected to a new generation of leaders. Others were sure it meant exactly the opposite.

In truth, only Jiang and the tiny inner circle of China's top leaders know what the pre-scripted outcome of the 16th Communist Party Congress will be.

And that, perhaps, points to the real lesson to emerge from all the conjecture: Despite two decades of monumental social and economic change, with China opening up to the likes of Ikea, the Internet and international investment, politics at the very top remains stuck in time. Today's party machinations are as shrouded in mystery as the palace intrigue of the country's imperial past, impervious to concepts of public accountability and transparency.

"This is a dangerous way to deliberate a nation's future [and] is the reason why it is difficult to imagine how China can continue to make progress into the modern world, much less the democratic world," said Orville Schell, a veteran Sinologist at UC Berkeley.

This is not to say that governance in China hasn't changed at all over the years.

At the grass-roots level, the Communist regime trumpets its experiment in village democracy, in which China's 1 million villages are supposed to choose their own leaders in free and fair elections. Although the experiment hasn't been as successful as the government likes to make out--corruption, party supremacy and even strong-arm tactics sully the record--some progress has been made in prying open the previously private dealings of local officials.

At least one province, the free-wheeling, economically advanced Guangdong, is trying to open some of its provincial-level affairs to public consultation and review.

And at the pinnacle of power, the days of Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, men who could spark mass movements or set policy with a single phrase or speech, are over. Jiang, albeit China's No. 1 leader, belongs to a collective of seven senior officials who rule by consensus as the standing committee of the Politburo.

But their workings--which determine the domestic agenda and foreign policy of the world's most populous nation--still take place in secret.

No free press or public watchdog group tries to uncover what goes on in Zhongnanhai, the government compound in the center of Beijing. There was a flicker of greater openness in the late 1980s, but it was extinguished by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Right after that traumatic event, Jiang became the party's general secretary, then cemented his position as top dog after Deng's death in 1997 by engineering the removal of two rivals at the 15th Communist Party Congress that year.

November's conclave was to be the 76-year-old's swan song as party chief and was meant to usher in China's so-called "fourth generation" of leaders, including the man widely believed to be in line to take over, Vice President Hu Jintao.

That the succession may not be proceeding as smoothly as originally hoped could stem partly from the fact that there is no blueprint for such a major transfer of power in the 53-year history of the People's Republic.

"The proliferation of speculation that has centered around the ... succession issue suggests how poorly structured the Chinese Communist leadership is in terms of well-established procedure," said Schell, "especially when it comes to leadership succession issues."

And any procedures that have been laid out "are almost never followed," he added. "The rule of man trumps the rule of law."

For the laobaixing, China's ordinary folk, the only thing to do is to wait and to read the tea leaves as best they can.

Recalling the Kremlinology in the days of the Soviet Union, observers here pay great attention to all sorts of details: who receives which dignitary, who shows up for which public functions, what order they stand in for official photographs--even their facial expressions. (Smiling? Scowling?)

Much of the political speculation revolves around the government-controlled media, the platform on which past power struggles have often taken place.

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