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Does China's Outgoing Leader Really Want to Give Up His Power? - 2002-07-17

Chinese leaders holding their annual talks at a seaside resort near Beijing are expected to use the gathering to discuss the future of Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang is scheduled to step down from his job as president next March, and he may leave his powerful party positions as well at the Communist Party congress in September or October. But some analysts wonder if Mr. Jiang really wants to relinquish all his power.

Every five years, the Chinese Communist Party holds a national party congress, when leadership changes and new party policies are announced. This week, the country's top leaders are meeting at Beidaihe, the seaside resort east of Beijing, to decide on those changes.

Jiang Zemin, 76, is not permitted to go beyond his second term as China's president when that expires in March. The party meeting in September or October is seen as a natural time for him to step down also as party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Vice president Hu Jintao, 59, has been groomed as Mr. Jiang's successor for the presidency and is widely expected to move into the top party jobs. After all, China scholar June Teufel Dreyer said, Hu Jintao was not picked by Mr. Jiang as the successor. That decision came from the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Professor Dreyer said if Jiang Zemin tries to keep one of his jobs, that could be seen as breaking the rules. "I think everyone is convinced that he is going to retain some degree of influence, and the real question is: does he retain a formal position or does he do it from behind the scenes? If he keeps a position, that has implications for the transition into the routinization of government, because it breaks the rules," Ms. Dreyer said.

Ms. Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami, said despite lots of speculation, she believes Mr. Jiang will step down as general secretary of the party. If Hu Jintao does not get that job, she said it will be seen as a major upset. Professor Dreyer said if Jiang Zemin tries to keep any position, it is more likely to be the leadership of the influential military commission.

Chinese political specialist Andrew Nathan agrees that Mr. Jiang has been trying to garner support for holding onto the military commission job. But Professor Nathan of Columbia University said he does not think that will happen.

"I think there has been some effort by him and by his supporters in the military commission to see if he could stay on, but in my opinion, that also has not generated support from the rest of the leadership, and I don't think it's going to happen. I think he's going to step down from all of these jobs," Mr. Nathan said.

However, another expert on Chinese politics, Murray Scot Tanner of Western Michigan University, disagrees. Professor Tanner said it's not yet clear whether Mr. Jiang will step down from the top military job. He said there are indications that those arrangements have not yet been decided.

"The way that the Chinese media have recently portrayed [Mr.] Jiang is one of the key clues that makes a lot of us think that Jiang Zemin may not step down from all three of his major positions. They have not been playing up very prominently the role of [Mr.] Jiang's anointed successor, Hu Jintao. They have, however, been giving an enormous amount of stress to [Mr.] Jiang and his power and the importance of his ideas in Chinese society. And this just doesn't look like a system that is getting ready to wave Jiang Zemin goodbye," Mr. Tanner said.

Instead, Professor Tanner said, it looks like Mr. Jiang is trying to position himself to try to hold onto at least one of his major positions.

Professor Nathan interprets the media campaign differently, saying it shows China sending off Jiang Zemin in "a blaze of glory." And Mr. Nathan said Jiang Zemin's prominence in the media suggests the party may be getting ready to enshrine some of his ideas into the party constitution.

Professor Dreyer said although the final decisions will not be known officially until the party meeting in the fall, strong indications are expected to emerge through what she calls the Beijing rumor mill after the leaders end their talks at Beidaihe. Professor Dreyer said rumors that have spread after past leadership retreats have generally turned out to be true.