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China Ex-President May Be Set to Yield Last Powerful Post


BEIJING, Sept. 6 - Jiang Zemin, China's military chief and senior leader, has told Communist Party officials that he plans to resign, prompting an intense and so far inconclusive struggle for control of the armed forces, two people with leadership connections say.

Mr. Jiang's offer to relinquish authority as chairman of the Central Military Commission potentially gives Hu Jintao - who succeeded Mr. Jiang as head of the Communist Party and president of China in 2002 and is now vice chairman of the military commission - a chance to become the country's undisputed top leader, commanding the state, the army and the ruling party.

But people here who were informed about a bargaining session under way at a government compound in western Beijing said it remained unclear whether Mr. Jiang genuinely intended to step aside, or if he would do so on terms acceptable to Mr. Hu.

Chinese political battles are often waged by indirection, with senior officials rarely stating their bottom line and often relying on supporters to represent their interests. Thus, one official said, it is possible that Mr. Jiang, 78, has calculated that he will be called on to remain military chief or to hold another position of influence.

Still, Mr. Jiang's planned resignation, which he announced to a meeting of senior party officials late last week, is an indication that the horse-trading under way before the convening of a national party meeting this month is the most contentious since a partial transfer of power to younger leaders took place in 2002, the people who were told about the proceedings said.

If Mr. Hu, who is 62, were to gain control of the armed forces, he could potentially carry out an agenda that some analysts say is more open to change at home and possibly less truculent in managing local hot spots like Hong Kong and Taiwan.

China's party-controlled news media have not reported on the secretive meetings. People who described the proceedings on condition of anonymity probably have only a partial understanding of what happened and have received their information from other individuals who have a vested interest in the outcome.

There are signs, though, that the jockeying goes beyond the closed-door deliberations that precede any major party meeting. A party official said he had been notified that the formal agenda for the coming meeting of the party's 198-member Central Committee - a discussion of how to improve party governance - had been scrapped, an indication that it had been overtaken by the broader power struggle.

Last week, Zeng Qinghong, China's vice president and Mr. Jiang's top lieutenant, skipped the opening ceremonies of the Central Party School, where he was to have delivered the keynote address. People at the party school said emergency meetings had made it impossible for Mr. Zeng to attend.

Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang have not publicly sparred over either domestic or foreign policy but are widely though to represent different schools of thinking on some major issues. Their struggle for influence is widely believed to have tipped China toward a harder line on several sensitive issues, including managing relations with Taiwan and political change in Hong Kong.

Chinese analysts say leadership divisions make it risky for senior officials to compromise on issues of sovereignty or security for fear that doing so would expose them to accusations that they were not adequately defending China's core interests.

If Mr. Jiang stepped aside, Mr. Hu might have leeway to build a consensus around new approaches to those two problems, though there is no clear indication that he would favor a decisive shift.

Mr. Jiang has long emphasized cordial working relations with the United States and suppressed domestic calls to challenge the world's leading power more assertively. Mr. Hu is thought to put slightly more emphasis on developing closer ties to Europe and China's immediate neighbors, but is not expected to pursue a markedly different policy toward Washington.

Mr. Jiang has no formal authority over domestic affairs, but his prolonged reign is thought to give him continued sway. Central and provincial officials considered loyal to Mr. Jiang have opposed elements of a campaign by Mr. Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to slow economic growth, reduce wasteful spending and investment, take a tougher line on corruption and redirect some government resources to the poor.

Mr. Jiang is also widely identified with China's emerging class of corporate tycoons and with the showcase coastal areas of Shanghai and Guangdong Province, which received strong support from the central government during his rule.

If Mr. Jiang's offer to resign turns out to be a ploy, or if his backers mobilize to keep him in his post, the power struggle could continue indefinitely - perhaps until the next full congress of the Communist Party in 2007. A party congress normally occurs once every five years and often coincides with large-scale shifts in the leadership.

It is unlikely that the general public has any sense of the leadership tensions. But state television and newspapers have been promoting seemingly routine and sometimes quirky news about Mr. Jiang, suggesting that he is eager to maintain a high profile at a crucial moment.

In recent days, numerous outlets, including People's Daily, the leading Communist Party newspaper, reported prominently on a calligraphic inscription Mr. Jiang made in 1990 for troops serving in Tibet.

The reports did not explain why the 14-year-old inscription had lasting relevance. But Mr. Hu at that time served as party secretary of Tibet, and the news reports could be interpreted as a reminder of Mr. Jiang's seniority.

Some political analysts have also been discussing a series of photos released in advance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping last month. One photo released by the official New China News Agency and printed in government newspapers to commemorate the event shows Mr. Hu shaking hands with Deng against a dark background.

In a photo released a short time later, Mr. Hu and Deng appear in identical positions, but the background shows that interaction took place at a large political gathering, with Mr. Jiang standing dead center between Mr. Hu and Deng as the two shook hands. That prompted speculation that Mr. Hu had been airbrushing Mr. Jiang out of the picture.

China was supposed to have completed a transition to what the party calls its fourth generation of leaders in 2002, with Mr. Jiang handing the baton to Mr. Hu, who had been training to govern China since the early 1990's.

Mr. Jiang ceded the titles of party chief and president to Mr. Hu but retained control of the armed forces, making the succession incomplete. The power struggle now under way is seen as further evidence that the final leadership array remains uncertain.

Some analysts predict that the debate over who controls the military could prompt similar disputes over government and party posts during the coming Central Committee meeting. The official news media have said that the conclave will take place sometime this month, though the exact date has not been announced.

According to two accounts of the current bargaining, the fate of Mr. Jiang has divided the country's top military officials, including the two generals who serve alongside Mr. Hu as vice chairmen of the military commission, as well as the four other commission members.

Gen. Cao Gangchuan, the defense minister and chief of the army's general armaments department as well as a vice chairman of the commission, is said to have supported Mr. Jiang's decision to resign. Gen. Liang Guanglie, commander in chief of the army and also a member of the military commission, has also called for Mr. Jiang to step aside.

But Gen. Guo Boxiong, the third vice chairman of the commission, and Xu Caihou, a commission member who also oversees military political affairs, are said to have opposed Mr. Jiang's resignation.

Mr. Hu was described as not having stated his opinion, though he is assumed to want Mr. Jiang to retire.

The situation is complicated by rival proposals to fill important positions if Mr. Jiang hands the chairmanship to Mr. Hu. Mr. Jiang proposed allowing Mr. Zeng, the vice president and his longtime ally, to succeed Mr. Hu as a vice chairman, a lineup that could leave Mr. Hu lacking full authority.

Mr. Hu was described as having proposed elevating both General Liang and Mr. Xu to vice chairmen, expanding the number of vice chairmen and ensuring that he would command a majority. Mr. Jiang is said to have rejected that proposal.

The description of the proceedings implies that Mr. Jiang is under heavy pressure to retire, even from top military officers once assumed to be his among his core supporters. One person with leadership connections said Mr. Jiang was suffering from throat cancer, though he appeared robust in a flurry of recent appearances on state television and in newly released newspaper photographs.

Mr. Jiang has survived numerous challenges to his authority since 1989, when he was promoted from a relatively junior position as Shanghai party chief to top national political posts. But he is not considered to have the prestige of Deng, meaning that he would have difficulty exerting authority in retirement the way Deng did until his death in 1997. (New York Times, September 7, 2004)

(09/10/2004 10:33)

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