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China Carefully Watching Jiang

Central Committee is to open meetings today amid speculation that the former president will cede full authority to his successor, Hu.

September 16, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The Central Committee of the Communist Party will begin four days of meetings today amid speculation that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, 78, will step down from his powerful military post and cede full authority to President Hu Jintao.

China may be more open than it has been for most of its history, but in matters related to the succession of its top leadership Beijing still bears far more resemblance to an ancient dynasty than to a modern economic powerhouse.

"Looking at politics in China is like watching flowers in the fog," said Wang Yukai, a Communist Party expert at the National School of Administration in Beijing. "In China we understand that things behind the scenes often tell more about problems than those on the surface."

Avid flower watchers say Hu and his No. 2, Premier Wen Jiabao, have adopted a slow, steady strategy to counter Jiang. This involves building up their political capital with the public through a series of populist gestures, adopting a more down-to-earth style and kinder-gentler policies until they have enough clout to nudge Jiang off the stage.

The timing will depend on Jiang's nominal assent and a determination by the relatively cautious Hu that he has his supporters in the right positions. In the meantime, pundits are left scratching around in the shadows.

Some say Jiang's family business empire continues to prosper, a sure sign that he remains in a strong political position. Others say his family business is not prospering, a sure sign that he's on the outs.

Other tea-leaf readers are busy analyzing coverage by China's media, controlled by Hu.

That the family of the late Deng Xiaoping appeared on television recently talking about how their father gave up power gracefully -- a clear jab at Jiang for holding on -- clearly shows his weakness, observers say. A China Youth Daily article cast an unfavorable light on Song Zuying, a popular folk singer and reputedly Jiang's lover, by detailing the $51,000 fee she got for performing in a poverty-stricken part of Sichuan province.

Personal moves and reported utterances form another supposed trove of circumstantial evidence: These include unsubstantiated reports that some of Jiang's traditional allies, including Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan, are shifting to Hu's side, or the fact that Defense Minister Gen. Cao Gangchuan praised Jiang lavishly last year during the Aug. 1 military celebration but didn't use his name once this year.

"There are a huge number of conflicting signs coming out," said Stephen Green, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, a London research institute. "One thing we can be sure of, though: The tension within the leadership and the fraction lines seem a lot clearer."

Hu made it clear Wednesday in a major speech in advance of today's meeting of the powerful 198-member Central Committee that China had no intention of following the West's political model. "History shows that blindly following Western political systems is a dead end for China," he said.

China is unlikely to allow a viable opposition party or direct popular elections anytime soon. Even public discussion or media coverage of the jockeying between Jiang and Hu remain largely off limits, with citizens left to guess what is going on behind the high red walls of the Zhongnanhai complex, China's White House.

"In the past, all conferences were held in absolute secrecy, especially reports about the party," said Mao Shoulong, professor of public administration at People's University in Beijing. "There's a move toward greater openness."

Making greater accountability the centerpiece of the four-day plenum was less for the public, analysts say, than for the party's own membership and growing corruption in the ranks.

"The party is facing a lot of practical problems," said Huang Nanping, head of the Marxism and Leninism Institute at Peking University. "Past historical legitimacy can't guarantee present or future legitimacy, which the Communist Party now understands."

Even if Jiang steps aside soon as head of the Central Military Commission overseeing China's 2.5-million-member armed forces, Hu will continue to face far greater challenges than did any of his predecessors since the country's foundation 55 years ago, analysts say. Compared with Mao Tse-tung and Deng, succeeding generations of leaders find themselves with less absolute power, analysts say.

Changes set in motion by the society's growing complexity, membership in the World Trade Organization and increased ties with other nations mean China should continue to move toward the rule of law, analysts say, barring some major setback.

"During the Cultural Revolution, a single word by our leader was turned immediately into laws obeyed by the whole nation," Huang said. "We're seeing not only more divisions of power, but more checks on power."

And though local judges are still chosen by Communist Party committees, they face less political interference in deciding lower-level cases.

In an interesting development, the Beijing News reported this week that senior party members attended court sessions to observe citizens suing the government as part of an effort to make them more responsive.

Whether the party and the government can find effective solutions to their many problems -- before people lose interest in their slogans and political maneuvering -- remains to be seen.

"A struggle between Jiang and Hu? I'm far more interested in pop stars," said Zhang Wei, a 21-year-old nurse.

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Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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