In search of Deng's successor

Jiang Zemin is in pole position as the struggle intensifies for the leadership of China. Teresa Poole reports
China's 90-year-old emperor, Deng Xiaoping, is fading, and the country's leaders are approaching the millennium with uncertainty. After a 16-year transformation of the economy, the Communist Party remains in power and refuses to give an inch on political reform. But now the last of the country's revolutionary leaders appears close to death and there are all the signs that an unpredictable period of transition has begun. An aggressively nationalistic foreign policy is being waged, a high-level political purge has swept the Peking municipal government, and this year's round-up of dissidents ahead of the 4 June anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is taking on added significance.

Officially, the baton of power has already been passed to the "third generation". In China's Communist lexicon, the "first-generation" leader was Chairman Mao, the "second-generation" chief was Mr Deng, while the "third-generation" represents the current crop of senior cadres who were too young to play a significant role in the 1949 revolution. The man at the "core" of the third generation is Jiang Zemin, who is not only president, but Communist Party chief and titular head of the armed forces as well.

Mr Jiang, formerly the party boss in Shanghai, is in fact the third of Mr Deng's anointed heirs; his two predecessors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, fell by the wayside in the 1980s, sacrificed to party hardliners. Mr Jiang was catapulted to the top as a compromise candidate after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. His problem is that titles maketh not the man; he lacks both the power base and charisma of his ailing patron. He is, however, a seasoned party operator. The pattern of disparate events over the past year seems to coalesce into Mr Jiang's personal strategy for political survival.

For China, the death of Mr Deng will mark a new era in which there is no emperor figure. When Mao died in 1976, a man with the necessary revolutionary credentials and political vision - Mr Deng - was already in the wings. Today, as the old revolutionaries die out, there are no candidates in the "third generation" with emperor qualities. So China's autocratic political system will have to mature into something resembling a collective leadership.

At present, the signs are that Mr Jiang is using every means to try and secure his political inheritance as primus inter pares. First, he must ensure the support of the military - an indispensable asset even for a sub-imperial Chinese leader. Since the beginning of last year, Mr Jiang has let the generals put their hardline stamp on foreign policy.

In 1994, they argued against concessions to the United States in the run-up to renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status. More recently, the military has driven China's hawkish stance over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where Chinese "fishermen's shelters" have appeared on atolls claimed by the Philippines. Nuclear tests, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan - on all these issues, China is taking an aggressive, nationalist line.

The nationalist card is a useful tool in any difficult period of transition. This week's row with Washington over granting an entry visa to Taiwan's president firmly establishes the US as an "enemy without". Mr Jiang must hope this will divert attention from problems closer to home. Standards of living have been transformed for most of the population, but people still deeply resent today's problems.

Inflation is more than 20 per cent and the wealth gap between rich and poor is stark; this year, to the government's considerable embarrassment, grain coupons have been reintroduced in 29 out of China's 35 largest cities. The Chinese government admits that many of the country's 800 million peasants cannot afford new charges for basic health care and education. The threat of unemployment hangs over tens of millions of state enterprise workers. And highest on everyone's list of grievances is corruption, which even the party accepts is destroying its authority.

It is against this background that the most significant of recent dramas has unfolded, the political purge within the Peking municipality which has been under way behind closed doors since early this year. Chinese people were astonished when a deputy mayor of Peking committed suicide in April while under investigation for "economic crimes". Then came the "resignation" of Chen Xitong as Peking's Communist Party chief. It all looks like a concerted effort by Mr Jiang, under the guise of an anti- corruption campaign, to rid himself of those "enemies within" who may pose problems later in the day.

The official enemies within are, of course, the dissidents. They too are looking to the future. Alarmingly for the government, in this year's run-up to the 4 June anniversary, some of those who have put their names to petitions for human rights and political reform also include eminent scholars not normally associated with activism. They articulate the obvious: that China's economic revolution has also nurtured a desire for the rule of law and some basic political freedoms.

Public dissent is kept at bay by a ruthless security apparatus. The respected octogenarian professors have not yet been detained, but over the past two weeks the police have picked up more than a dozen younger signatories. They will join those activists who were imprisoned this time last year. Received wisdom has always held that Mr Deng's death will be immediately preceded by a round-up of dissidents. But if the big day is now only months away, Mr Jiang may decide it is more convenient just to keep everyone in jail for the duration.

If one were to guess Mr Jiang's immediate programme of action, it might be along these lines. First, deploy enough security to ensure 4 June passes with no disturbance. Then, bring forward the annual Communist Party plenum, which this year must approve the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000) - in effect, the official economic blueprint for the post-Deng era. A first draft may be completed as early as July, ready for a quick party meeting in the hope that the ink is well dry before Mr Deng dies. The plan itself will almost certainly shy away from radical policies, in particular any immediate upheaval in loss-making state industries.

That leaves the self-inflicted nightmare for Mr Jiang of Peking hosting September's UN World Conference on Women and the parallel NGO Forum. An estimated 30,000 independent-minded activists from around the world, as well as thousands of journalists eager to report the slightest manifestation of domestic dissent, will descend on the Chinese capital. Dreading the prospect of angry NGO women marching towards Tiananmen Square, it is no wonder that Peking unilaterally decided to shunt the forum site to the rural town of Huairou, an hour's drive away.

Thus, while the Chinese government insists that a "smooth transition" has already taken place, recent events point to a less tranquil atmosphere within the Zhongnanhai walled leadership compound in central Peking. The political purge in Peking is probably the first stage of a drawn-out transitional period. At stake is not only whether Mr Jiang maintains his position but whether any power struggle at the highest level will remain behind closed doors or spill on to the streets outside.

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