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China's Leaders Gather to Discuss New Leadership

China's top leaders are holding their annual secret meetings this week, preparing the way for a change of power later this year. But most political analysts expect President Jiang Zemin to wield considerable influence in China for years to come.

The Chinese leadership meeting, at the northeast seaside resort of Beidaihe, is said to be focused on two key issues: How to hand over power and how to keep the Chinese Communist Party relevant and in control of an increasingly complex and capitalist society.

There is no question about who will succeed 76-year-old President Jiang Zemin. His vice president, 59-year-old Hu Jintao, has long been tapped to take up the post at the end of Mr. Jiang's second term, early next year. Mr. Jiang is barred from holding a third term.

Mr. Jiang is also widely expected to hand off the post of general secretary of the Communist Party to Mr. Hu at the party congress in September or October. The congress is held every five years.

If Mr. Jiang does step down from both posts, it will mark the first time communist China has transferred power based on procedures and institutions rather than on personalities and tradition.

But analysts say a power transfer is unlikely to diminish Mr. Jiang's overall influence for the foreseeable future.

They note that Mr. Jiang is successfully drumming up support for the congress to incorporate his theory, called "three represents," into the party constitution. The theory states that the Communist Party represents a much wider cross-section of the population than just workers and farmers. Mr. Jiang formulated it two years ago to allow the party to adapt to China's increasingly market-driven society. Supporters hail it as a breakthrough in Marxism.

China watcher Zheng Yongnian at the East Asia Institute in Singapore says, if the party adopts the "three represents" theory, as expected, it could determine the pace of political reform in China for the next five years. He says it would cement Mr. Jiang's place in the pantheon of Chinese communist leaders. "That means the party has to revise the older version of the party constitution, and that is very important for Jiang Zemin," he said. "It's a way for Jiang Zemin to extend his political influence into the next generation of leadership."

Another key issue being discussed at the Beidaihe resort is whether the Chinese leader will retain his powerful position as head of the armed forces. Mr. Jiang has expressed interest in keeping the post, as did his predecessor Deng Xiaoping.

Analysts say military leaders, many appointed by Mr. Jiang, strongly back the idea so they, too, can maintain their influence, even with Hu Jintao at the helm.