BEIJING — The walls of Zhongnanhai, China's equivalent of the White House, are high, red and designed to keep prying eyes at bay. More than a year after Hu Jintao was named president and Wen Jiabao premier in modern China's first orderly transfer of power, many are still wondering who's in charge.
The short answer, analysts say, is no one -- at least not fully. Hu and Wen control the economy, social issues and most areas of foreign policy, while former President Jiang Zemin retains control over the military and most issues related to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Divisions at the top have often spelled trouble for China, most dramatically during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. China's growing global presence in politics, economics and diplomacy also means more of the world has a stake in the nation's stability.
However, analysts believe the current situation is sustainable because, despite their very different styles, the two leadership camps appear to agree on many key issues, including national security and taking a hard-line stance toward Taiwan. Some even regard the division as an important phase in developing a more consensus-based approach to making decisions.
"It's no longer possible for a single leader to make decisions alone," said Ma Ling, author of biographies of Hu and Wen. "This is progress for the Chinese system."
Jiang's power over the armed forces is important in a nation where the ruling party reached power through armed struggle and the People's Liberation Army is heralded as the "Great Wall of iron safeguarding our motherland."
"Ultimately, the final power always rests with the military," said Liu Junning, a researcher with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute.
Time is not on Jiang's side. At 77, he's 16 years older than Hu. He's not particularly popular. Chinese quietly criticize him for being a bit full of himself and for remaining on stage too long.
With each passing month, Hu and Wen are building credentials as capable leaders, weakening any argument that Jiang needs to stick around.
Jiang's continuing power rests on a network of colleagues from Shanghai and elsewhere. By some counts, five or six of the nine members of the Communist Party's powerful Politburo Standing Committee are in his camp.
Hu and Wen's strategy, analysts say, is to gradually amass power through steady stewardship, avoid missteps that might anger hard-liners among Jiang's supporters and replace or win over key Jiang allies.
Hu and Wen are also trying to build support among ordinary Chinese and lower-level government and party officials. Although China is hardly a democracy, public opinion is increasingly important. Even though they rose through an autocratic system, Hu and Wen have shown political skills worthy of a Chicago alderman.
They have helped their standing by kissing babies, eating new year's dumplings with coal miners, shaking hands with HIV patients, expressing outrage at baby-formula scandals and making sure migrant workers get paid. Hu also received praise for his handling of the SARS epidemic.
"Jiang knows Hu is gaining," said Cheng Li, government professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York and author of "China's Leaders: The New Generation."
"Time is on Hu and Wen's side," Li said.
Potential structural changes also are coming into play. Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping ruled by strength of personality. Jiang lacked their charisma and revolutionary credentials but benefited from their legacies and ruled more by command than consensus. Hu and Wen may try to change the political structure to better reflect a more diverse society, improving its ability to chug along regardless of who is on top.
"For this generation of leaders, it's very important to design rules, not policies built around Supermen like Mao and Deng," said Victor Yuan, chairman of Beijing-based Horizon, a marketing-research firm that does polling for the private sector and the Communist Party. "I think Hu and Wen have this idea in mind."
Some expect them to eventually turn their eye toward military reform, perhaps in cooperation with Jiang, making the army a more modern fighting force but also more answerable to the rest of society.
Because Hu and Wen are not expected to make dramatic moves until their power is consolidated, analysts stress that it could be years before it's clear whether and how intent they are on reform.
Any crisis, such as a war with Taiwan or an economic meltdown, would be likely to play into the hands of Jiang and the hard-liners. Barring a calamity, however, analysts foresee various scenarios under which Jiang will relinquish chairmanship of the Central Military Commission and hand full power to Hu and Wen.
In the earliest transition, Jiang might depart this year or in early 2005, based on the precedent of Deng's decision to relinquish control over the military midway through Jiang's first term. But Jiang might also try to cling to power until he dies or is pushed out. A compromise scenario puts the shift at the start of the 17th National Party Congress and Hu and Wen's second term in 2007.
"Jiang can give up his power at any time," said Liu of the Cultural Studies Institute. "As to when it would happen, there's no clear answer right now."
Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.