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Chinese President to Retire, Saturday - 2003-03-14


Chinese President Jiang Zemin is expected to retire Saturday and hand over his position to Vice President Hu Jintao. But many believe that Mr. Jiang will continue to maintain a tight grip on power from behind the scenes.

Leadership transitions in communist China have always been messy. Two successors originally chosen by Chairman Mao Zedong died in infamy, after being dismissed as disloyal. Two anointed by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping were cast aside for being too liberal.

By contrast, the current leadership transfer, to be finalized at the end of the National People's Congress, has been touted as the most orderly succession in more than a half-century of Communist rule.

Vice President Hu Jintao is expected to replace Jiang Zemin, 76, as president. Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is tapped to succeed Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in overseeing economic reforms for the next five years. And Vice Prime Minister Wu Bangguo is expected to inherit the post of parliament chief from current party elder, Li Peng.

All three new leaders were promoted to senior Communist Party positions at the 16th party congress in Beijing last November.

But some observers say China's transfer of power is far from over. Kenneth Lieberthal is a China scholar at the University of Michigan.

"This has been orderly," he said, "it has been reasonably timely, but it is not clear whether it has been a full transition or not and there are indications that it has not."

Mr. Lieberthal says Mr. Jiang is clinging to power, primarily by staying on as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

By maintaining control of China's armed forces for another year or more, observers say Mr. Jiang would be able to ensure continuity in the country's foreign and defense policies - including relations with Taiwan and the United States. He would also be in charge of the country's law and order, thereby making sure that the People's Liberation Army remains loyal to the Communist Party.

Evan Medeiros, a China analyst at the Rand Corporation in Washington, says Mr. Jiang has taken a series of other steps to guarantee his ongoing influence on elite politics - including grooming leaders who will remain faithful to him.

"Jiang's… efforts to put some of his key people in power is a long-standing part of China's political tradition," he explained, " 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."

Former supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong continued to wield great power until their deaths. Mr. Jiang does not command anywhere near the same level of reverence as his Communist revolutionary predecessors.

But at last November's party congress, Mr. Jiang successfully made way for the promotion of six of his protégés to the elite, nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politburo.

Many analysts expect Mr. Jiang's closest aide, Zeng Qinghong, to be named Vice President, making him potentially a rival to Mr. Hu.

Mr. Jiang brought Mr. Zeng from Shanghai to Beijing with him in 1989, when Mr. Jiang was appointed party leader after the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Zeng now handles the party's day-to-day affairs, and has recently replaced Mr. Hu as head of the Central Party School, an influential think tank and training ground for Communist officials. Some observers speculate that Mr. Zeng has already distinguished himself as a potentially more capable leader than Mr. Hu, and that if the two leaders engaged in a power struggle, Mr. Zeng would be more likely to come out on top.

Richard Baum, a China expert at the University of California in Los Angeles, says that Mr. Zeng someday may eclipse both Mr. Hu and the retired Mr. Jiang.

"I think that Jiang Zemin will not be able to control things very well for very lon," he said. " I think Zeng Qinghong has shown plenty of signs that he is his own man, or is capable of being his own man. He is smart; he is talented."

Mr. Baum adds that Mr. Hu will have a tough time gaining enough support from other senior party members to push through new policies, and that he may not even last five-years until the next Communist Party Congress.

Regardless of who eventually emerges as China's paramount leader, the Communist Party is bound to face severe tests during the next decade, from widespread unemployment and labor unrest to the mountain of bad debts in its banking system.

To survive these challenges, observers say the Communist Party will have to put aside any signs of instability within its leadership and present a united front.