China's President Jiang Zemin appears likely to give up his position as head of the Communist Party at a crucial meeting of Chinese leaders next week. But recent high-level appointments indicate that Mr. Jiang will continue to maintain a tight grip on power from behind the scenes.
This year, the Communist Party Congress - which is held once every five years - was supposed to mark a dramatic but peaceful transfer of power from the aging rulers of today to a younger generation. But most analysts now believe there will be very little real power changing hands in the next few years.
Academics and journalists long expected the crucial meeting to take place in September. Then the 16th Party Congress was delayed amid rumors of squabbling among the Party elite. Chinese President Jiang Zemin was allegedly trying to defy established succession plans and remain on as Communist Party chief, but is said to have encountered too much opposition.
Now the leadership meeting will start November 8, and China observers say that at the conclusion of the congress, Mr. Jiang is indeed likely to relinquish his post as General Secretary. Vice-President Hu Jintao is expected to inherit Mr. Jiang's title as party head, and then president next March.
Yet even as the countdown to Mr. Jiang's formal retirement begins, most experts agree the president looks set to maintain strong political influence for some years to come.
Fred Teiwes, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, says one of the ways Mr. Jiang appears likely to cling to power is by staying on as head of China's armed forces. "Just to emphasize the uncertainty and the quasi-ness of it all is this whole business, which has gotten a great deal of attention: whether Jiang will give up the position of chair of the Central Military Commission," he said. "There's no written document saying that he should, but the general understanding about retirement once you're past age 70 certainly applies."
By holding onto the chairmanship of China's military forces for another year or more, observers say the 76-year-old Mr. Jiang would be able to ensure continuity in the country's foreign and defense policies, including relations with Taiwan and the United States. In addition, he would be in charge of the country's law and order, thereby making sure that the People's Liberation Army remains faithful to the Communist Party.
Evan Medeiros, a China analyst at the Rand Corporation in Washington, says Mr. Jiang appears to have taken a series of other steps to guarantee his continuing influence on top-level politics, including grooming leaders who will remain faithful to him. "Mr. Jiang's supposed rumored efforts to put some of his key people in power is a long-standing part of China's political tradition, in which the senior leader, even when he steps down from his formal post, for many years continues to exert influence on the bureaucracy to move the country in directions consistent with that leader's beliefs," said Evan Madeiros.
Former supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong continued to wield great power until their deaths - and even beyond the grave. Although Mr. Jiang does not command anywhere near the same level of reverence as his Communist revolutionary predecessors, he nonetheless has tried to develop a similar personality cult surrounding his theory of what is called the "Three Represents."
The theory suggests that the Communist Party should welcome wealthy businesspeople into its ranks, and is expected to be enshrined in the party's constitution at the upcoming congress. It has been interpreted by some analysts as an attempt in the last decade to ideologically justify how a communist country can successfully adopt free-market practices, yet adhere to its revolutionary principles. It also is aimed at ensuring that the Communist Party maintains its legitimacy and monopoly on power.
Analysts say that Mr. Jiang has successfully made way for some protégés to be promoted to the elite, seven-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politburo.
Most notably, Zeng Qinghong, the former head of the Party Organization Department and Mr. Jiang's number one ally, has been transferred to an unspecified central government post. Observers widely expect Mr. Zeng to be elevated to the Standing Committee at the Party Congress. Other protégés of Mr. Jiang, too, have been installed as the new party chiefs of Shanghai and Beijing, as well as the country's propaganda director. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, expects that at least in the short term, Mr. Jiang's allies will have the upper hand over other senior leaders in terms of formulating policy. "Regarding the composition of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, clearly he will have on his side at least four leaders among seven who will continue to support him, or through whom he will continue to remain influential," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan.
All of these high-level appointments mean that although Vice-President Hu will likely be at the helm of the Communist Party in name, he may in practice have very little power.
Mr. Cabestan says Mr. Hu will find it difficult to do anything - whether proposing policies, issuing memos, or appointing personnel - without Mr. Jiang's indirect oversight to get consensus in the seven-member Standing Committee. "I rather see Hu Jintao keeping his cards very close to his chest as long as Jiang Zemin remains influential, and as long as he has not secured a more powerful power base, before initiating any new reforms," he said.
So although the 16th Party Congress has been touted as a landmark, peaceful changing of the guard in the often turbulent half-century of Communist rule, Mr. Cabestan and other analysts say real political changes are likely to be put on the backburner, perhaps until the 17th Party Congress in 2007.