Speculation is rising that China's president, Jiang Zemin, wants to hold onto his job as Communist Party chief despite expectations he would retire this fall. The development, if confirmed, could trigger a power struggle in the upper reaches of China's leadership. VOA's Leta Hong Fincher has this report from the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where top leaders are meeting to decide who will rule China for the foreseeable future.
Chinese tourists crowd the beach under yellow and blue umbrellas at the Beidaihe resort. Children splash happily in the water, and teenagers strap themselves to amusement rides that flip them into the air. It's a typical summer holiday scene in China except for the police who stop anyone from crossing over a rope to the west end of the beach.
A seafood salesman who calls himself Mr. Lu gestures to the distant villas on the other side of a long and empty stretch of sand.
"That's where Jiang Zemin stays," says Mr. Lu. "We're not allowed to go there," he says.
For decades, China's top leaders have escaped the oppressive heat of Beijing to discuss high-level politics at Beidaihe. Mr. Lu thinks nothing of all the plainclothes police who comb the beaches each summer. But this time, even he knows that something unusual is going on behind the guards' checkpoint.
Mr. Lu says the leaders are holding an election to decide who will be the next Communist Party chief. "It's time for Jiang Zemin to retire," he says. "The country cannot be ruled by one person forever."
It isn't quite an election, but the discussions taking place amid great secrecy at Beidaihe are as close to a presidential contest as it gets in China. The country's leaders are preparing for this fall's 16th Communist Party Congress, which is expected to mark the transition of power from Beijing's aging rulers to a younger generation.
The congress is usually held in September or October. But many observers suggest this year's gathering could be pushed back to November, in part because of a possible power struggle among the party elite. Rumors are flying that Mr. Jiang, 76, is no longer prepared to retire as Communist Party chief, president or head of the armed forces.
One possible sign of this in recent weeks has been China's state media, which have stepped up their praise of Mr. Jiang's policies and urged the public to study his theory of what is called the "Three Represents." The theory implies that the Communist Party should welcome private business people into its ranks, as well as its traditional base of workers and farmers.
Mr. Jiang wants his theory to be written into the party's constitution. Some experts believe this move is merely to safeguard the president's legacy after he retires. But many say the move proves Mr. Jiang is trying to legitimize a bid to stay in power.
Some executives with ties to party officials say the president's chief ally, Zeng Qinghong, head of the Organization Department, is rallying support for Mr. Jiang to continue his rule. Vice President Hu Jintao, 59, had been widely expected to become China's next Communist Party chief and president. But after years of being Mr. Jiang's anointed successor, Mr. Hu is now said to be backing away from his claim to the party's top job and telling officials he is not yet ready for such great responsibility.
If this proves to be true, many analysts believe China's limited moves toward political reform would be set back.
Fred Teiwes is a professor of politics at the University of Sydney. He says China's leadership transitions have become what he calls "quasi-institutional."
"There are rules and principles that various protagonists within the leadership will have to adhere to," said Mr. Teiwes. "One of them being term limitations, age limitations and so forth. This feeds into the more general consideration: you want leaders who are capable of carrying out leadership and not going into their dotage and losing grip on the affairs of state."
Mr. Teiwes says one of the unofficial rules is to step down from party positions after age 70. He says an attempt by any one of China's top leaders to break the accepted rules of transition could cause serious divisions among the Communist Party elite. And a divided party leadership suggests that China might become unstable.
But Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan Business School, says China has withstood great internal tension in the past. "I think it's likely that the succession will go sufficiently smoothly that one need not worry about stability. But it's worth keeping in mind that past experience indicates that systemic instability in China occurs when the top leadership openly divides."
The last time a power struggle took place openly among China's top leaders was during Beijing's pro-democracy protests in 1989. The demonstrations ended in a violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Very few experts inside China, however, are willing to speculate publicly about Mr. Jiang's intentions. Wu Guoguang, a former party official, says China's political system is so shrouded in secrecy that it is impossible for even the most seasoned China watchers to know for sure what is happening.
Mr. Wu says no one knows whether Jiang Zemin will fully retire from his party positions. He says Mr. Jiang has suggested that he would step down at the party congress, but he never said so directly. And even if Mr. Jiang retires, Mr. Wu says he might still wield great power from behind the scenes. He says China's president, and other top leaders such as Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Parliament Chief Li Peng, are certainly trying to appoint their protégés to powerful positions.
Mr. Jiang is scheduled to meet with President Bush in the United States this October. If the congress is postponed until after that time, China's rulers will have several more months to haggle over the looming leadership change. At the leadership's summer retreat in Beidaihe, a motorcade of black Audi sedans with tinted windows, sirens and Communist Party elite license plates passes by the throngs of tourists.
Mr. Lu, the seafood salesman, shrugs his shoulders when asked what he thinks about President Jiang's policies.
"We ordinary people have no control over the country's problems," he says.