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China's new star in the making

China leadership
Vice president Hu (L) shares a light moment with Premier Zhu Rongji (R).  

In this story:

Men going places

Setback for competitor

Smuggling ring

Power-share with aides

(CNN) -- Chinese Vice-President Hu Jintao is consolidating his power as the jockeying intensifies in the run-up to the 16th Communist Party Congress next year.

The 58-year-old leader is pushing for the promotion of at least two proteges to senior party organs such as the Central Committee Secretariat and the Politburo.

Hu associates that the vice president wants elevated include the Party Secretary of Fujian province, Song Defu, and the Governor of Henan province, Li Keqiang.

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Like Hu, both Song and Li once headed the Communist Youth League, deemed a liberal offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A former Minister of Personnel, Song, 55, has the reputation of a reformer. He was appointed head of Fujian earlier this year to restore morale to officials hard hit by a spate of smuggling and corruption scandals.

According to a party source, personnel issues will dominate the summer leadership conference at the north China resort of Beidaihe.

"Heavyweights including Politburo Standing Committee members have started floating the names of proteges for induction to top party organs," the source said.

"Hu, who is almost sure to succeed [President] Jiang Zemin as party General Secretary, has privately indicated he wants Song and Li in the Secretariat if not also the Politburo."

Men going places

Apart from Song and Li, Youth League alumnae who are deemed to be going places include the current league chief Zhou Qiang and the Vice Head of the CCP Central Committee General Office Ling Jihua.

Hu's expanding clout is illustrated by two recent developments. The vice president was put in charge of negotiations with the Americans over the spy plane incident.

The official media also gave top billing to a speech that he delivered in Hanoi while attending the ninth Vietnamese Communist party congress last week.

In the address, Hu disclosed that there would be elaborate celebrations for the CCP's 80th birthday on July 1 -- and there would be major changes at the 16th party congress next year.

"We must sum up the past, plan for the future and hack out new paths," the Xinhua news agency quoted Hu as saying.

Hu's ascendancy is also evidenced by the declining political fortunes of two of Jiang's protégés: head of the CCP Organization Department, Zeng Qinghong, and the party boss of Guangdong province, Li Changchun.

Zeng, a member of the CCP secretariat and an alternate member of the Politburo, is deemed Jiang's closest adviser.

Setback for competitor

Zeng is also seen as Hu's only competitor for the party's top job at the 16th congress. And the president has made no secret of the fact that even if Zeng cannot become general secretary next year, he should be inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee.

A senior Western diplomat in Beijing said however, that Zeng, who failed to be made a full Politburo member last October, suffered a further setback at the recently convened CCP Central-level Work Meeting.

"At the work meeting, Jiang wanted to test the waters by giving Zeng more responsibilities," the diplomat said.

"He suggested that a couple or so of party secretariat members, including Zeng, be allowed to sit in on Politburo Standing Committee meetings. But the proposal was shot down by Politburo heavyweights Wei Jianxing and Li Ruihuan."

Both Li Ruihuan and Wei, a disciple of former National People's Congress (NPC) chairman Qiao Shi, are considered Jiang's political foes.

The diplomat added Jiang might still give a big push for Zeng's full Politburo status later this year. But Zeng remains intensely unpopular partly because of his control over the dossiers of most cadres.

At the same time, Li Changchun's chances of becoming premier in 2003 have become slim. And this is not just because the incumbent, Premier Zhu, does not want Li to succeed himself.

A Guangdong source said Li, a former party secretary of Liaoning and Henan provinces who took up his Guangdong posting in 1998, had been hurt by corruption scandals in the three provinces with which he had been associated.

Smuggling ring

"In the past six months, a few tens of officials in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning, have been nabbed for graft," the source said.

"Then a listed company in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, folded in the wake of multiple malpractices. And Beijing has intensified investigation into the smuggling ring based in Shantou, a Guangdong special zone."

"Quite a few of the Shenyang officials arrested were Li's former associates. These incidents have given the impression that Li is a poor administrator. "

Li's political troubles have further boosted the status of Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao as frontrunner for the premier's position.

A protégé of Premier Zhu, Wen, 58, is in charge of the key portfolios of finance and agriculture.

Wen's elevation would also benefit Vice President Hu as both rising stars first made their mark while serving in the poor northwestern province of Gansu.

For veteran analysts of the power games in Beijing, however, whether Hu can successfully take over power at the 16th congress still depends on President Jiang.

Power-share with aides

While Hu has often been described as Jiang's heir-apparent, it is important to note that the former is not a member of the president's so-called Shanghai faction.

It is understood Jiang wants a collective leadership to run China after his retirement from the post of party chief in 2002 and that of president a year later.

While the president seems to have acquiesced in Hu's accession to the party chief's job, he is adamant that the latter share power with trusted aides such as Zeng and Li Changchun.

Moreover, it is no secret that Jiang himself wants to retain the chairmanship of the party's Central Military Commission for a few more years.

"Four of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members -- Hu, Zhu, Wei and Li Ruihuan -- are united in various degrees in their desire to frustrate Jiang's grand plans for himself and his followers," said a veteran party cadre.

The cadre said, however, while Jiang seemed under pressure, the so-called "core of the third generation leadership" remained first among equals in the Politburo.

Moreover, there are signs Jiang has formed a power pact with NPC Chairman Li Peng, who was premier at the time of the June 4, 1989 massacre.

It is understood that in return for Li Peng's support for his draconian measures against the Falun Gong cult, Jiang has backed the parliamentary chief's view that the official verdict on Tiananmen Square must never be reversed.

According to the cadre, Li Peng, 72, is eyeing the position of state president.

And Li has privately told Jiang he is willing to give his full support to the latter's protégés such as Zeng and Li Changchun if the president would help him retain influence beyond the 16th party congress.

Despite his lackluster image overseas, Li has a solid following among party elders and powerful conservative factions opposed to reforms such as China's accession to the World Trade Organization.

Analysts said much of the future of the CCP -- and reform -- could hinge on whether the Jiang-Li alliance could hold back the forces of change.

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