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China's Annual Communist Party Policy Meeting Begins Amid Rumors of Power Shift - 2004-09-16

Leaders of China's Communist Party have opened a four-day plenum amid reports of internal jockeying between supporters of President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin.

The annual gathering opened amid great secrecy in Beijing Thursday, with party officials refusing even to say where the 198 members of the Communist Party Standing Committee were meeting.

Observers say they expect intense bargaining between supporters of President Hu Jintao and backers of former President Jiang Zemin over the former leader's political future.

Mr. Jiang has retained much influence as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and recent reports have quoted party sources as saying he may be under pressure by Mr. Hu's supporters to fade from the political scene.

However, political science professor Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong says it is unlikely backers of Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will push very hard this week for Jiang Zemin's retirement.

Professor Cheng notes that Mr. Jiang, now 78, will probably have to give up his post in any case by the time 2007 party congress comes along.

"Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao certainly understand that time is on their side," he said. "There's no need to confront him. It's too dangerous. It's too destabilizing. They will quietly try to contain him, rather than confront him."

Topping the agenda of this year's meeting are plans to improve governance within the party. Battling corruption and increasing transparency have been key elements of the platform of Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen, who see the issues as crucial to maintaining the party's 55-year monopoly on power.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hu repeated that message, at the same time ruling out the possibility of adopting a Western-style democratic system in China.

Professor Cheng says this is part of the Chinese leader's reason for emphasizing improved governance.

"In the absence of democracy, in the absence of major political reforms, the Chinese leadership would like to strengthen the legitimacy of the party; to enhance support for the party, as well as to modernize the party by streamlining the decision-making process," he said.

The plenum is scheduled to conclude on Sunday.