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Jiang's grip on power may decide pace of China reforms

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
Senior China Analyst, CNN.com

This is the first regular weekly column by Willy Lam.

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Chinese supremo Jiang Zemin is seeking ways to remain the nation's de facto No. 1 after his expected retirement from the posts of party chief in 2002 and state president in 2003.

However, Jiang, 74, is meeting tremendous resistance - and whether he can succeed in prolonging his predominance will have major implications for the nation's reforms.

Under China's constitution no president can serve for more than two terms and Jiang must step down from the ceremonial but important post of head of state in early 2003.

There are, however, no retirement rules for party jobs, such as general secretary or chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), positions that Jiang has held respectively since 1989 and 1990.

Party sources say the president, the putative "core of the Third Generation leadership," had told intimates he would definitely quit the position of party general secretary at the 16th Communist Party Congress in late 2002.

According to sources, it is no secret that Jiang is trying to adopt the "Deng Xiaoping model" -- a reference to how Deng, who had retired from all party and government slots in the early 1980s, nonetheless clung to power thanks to his retention of the post of CMC chief.

Earlier this year Western military analysts said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had opened a new building which houses the CMC headquarters.

Inside the building, Mr. Jiang's aides are reported to have ensured that the office for CMC chief - which takes up an entire top floor - is as luxuriously appointed as that of a commander in chief of a Western country.

According to the Deng model, members of the Fourth Generation - meaning politicians in their mid-50s to early 60s such as Vice-President Hu Jintao and Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao - will take over the helm in 2002 and 2003.

Heath permitting, Jiang, as a latter-day Deng, would continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

According to the party sources, however, Jiang's gambit is not working as well as it should.

Sources say Jiang's colleagues at the Politburo Standing Committee - the nation's highest ruling council - had in private indicated that Third Generation cadres should quit all their posts in 2002 and 2003 in the interest of rejuvenation.

This would make it hard for Jiang to maintain his position in CMC post beyond 2002.

Under challenge

Signs that Jiang's authority were being challenged first surfaced at a plenary session of the party Central Committee in October, when the president failed to promote Zeng Qinghong, an alternate member of the Politburo, to full member of the ruling council.

Considered Jiang's alter ego and gatekeeper, Zeng, 61, is unpopular because in his position as head of the party's Organization Department he controls the dossiers of senior cadres.

Furthermore, Jiang has faced hurdles establishing his so-called 'Jiang Zemin Theory' as a guiding principle for the party.

Contrary to earlier plans, 'Jiang Theory' was not discussed in detail at the Central Committee plenary meeting, despite the wishes of the president's handlers that his teachings would be enshrined in the party charter at the 16th Party Congress.

Jiang's brief trip last month to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, close to Hong Kong, revealed further evidence that his efforts to build a personality cult around himself had run into difficulties.

According to a Shezhen official plans had been made to erect a giant billboard extolling Jiang Theory.

"Since the early 1990s, a huge billboard bearing Deng's photograph and his edicts on reform has dominated a downtown street," the official said. "Jiang wanted a similar showcase for himself."

But no such billboards were erected during the president's visit. Instead, Mr. Jiang chose to underscore his status as Deng's successor by unveiling a statue of the late Chief Architect of Reform.

Power base

Now the president's advisers are said to be mulling a new plan to extend his influence.

According to a veteran think-tank member close to the Jiang camp, this involves the establishment of a National Security Council -- a body far more powerful than similar organs in the United States and elsewhere.

A Chinese-style NSC will set policy for areas including national security, foreign policy, foreign trade and military strategy.

"The NSC will have authority over departments including the Foreign Ministry, the party's International Liaison Department, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, the Ministry of State Security, and to some extent, the PLA," the think-tank member said.

It is understood that Jiang had toyed with the idea of an NSC for two years and that at first he had wanted his protˇgˇ Zeng Qinghong to head it. Now, however, some Jiang aides have asked the president to consider taking the position himself to ensure he has the requisite platform from which to influence events after his retirement.

Pace of reform

Analysts say the future of reform could hinge on whether Jiang ultimately gets his way with most Fourth Generation leaders, such as Vice-President Hu Jintao, wanting to move faster with economic, and particularly, political reform soon after the 16th Party Congress.

Such leaders have, for example, sent aides to Europe to study the social democratic party model with a view to injecting more pluralism, if not full-fledged democracy, into the Chinese system.

Fourth Generation politicians are also expected to take more resolute steps than their predecessors in privatizing key parts of the economy.

However, if President Jiang succeeds in remaining the power behind the throne, experimentation with Western-style reforms might be shelved or delayed.

At present Mr. Jiang is still in relative good health -- his remaining goal is to ensure that his status and legacy will at least equal those of Chairman Mao Zedong or Deng in the history books.

Given the fact that he has not accomplished that much -- the solution to the Taiwan issue, for example, remains illusory - the president has every incentive to remain top dog for as long as his health and clout can hold up.


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