Deng bolsters Jiang with another title: The Chinese leader hopes to smooth the way for his heir apparent by making him president

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE looking-glass world of Chinese politics, where the most powerful man has no official titles, one person is now taking all the top jobs.

Jiang Zemin, head of the world's largest Communist Party and chief of the army, will today also assume the mantle of China's presidency. In theory this puts the stamp on Mr Jiang as heir apparent of Deng Xiaoping, the ageing master-puppeteer of Chinese politics. But most China-watchers say trying to bolster a man like Mr Jiang with numerous titles will do nothing to pre-empt a destabilising and vicious battle for power after Mr Deng's death.

When Mr Jiang is elected China's president in the cavernous Great Hall of the People today - there are no other candidates - it will mark the final step in a remarkably swift concentration of power, at least on paper.

Just four years ago he was the relatively low-profile party boss in Shanghai. When Zhao Ziyang was sacked in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Mr Jiang was plucked as a compromise figure and catapulted to the general secretaryship of the Chinese Communist Party. Appointment as head of the party's important Central Military Commission followed last year.

The past four years have done little to transform Mr Jiang's image. Diplomats in Peking still most often describe him as 'a compromise' and 'weak'.

Far from being a strongman in the manner of Mao Tse-tung or Deng Xiaoping, Mr Jiang is likened to Hua Guofeng, who held on to power for just a couple of years after Mao's death.

'Mr Hua's titles did not do him any good,' said one Western analyst. 'But the situation was more stable then, because there was already a Deng Xiaoping in the background.'

Mr Deng, whose only official position is honorary chairman of the country's bridge-playing association, remains at 88 the driving force behind China's economic reforms.

But his attempts to organise an orderly succession have been far less successful. The two previous choices, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both fell by the wayside. The strategy with Mr Jiang is to hope the titles will make the man.

Mr Jiang's personality has so far failed to impress his leadership qualities on Western diplomats, although it will be much smoother now for him to front diplomatic ceremonies as President rather than party boss. 'Western visitors quite like him, he comes across as laid back, and throws bits of English in,' said someone who has met him. 'He can quote Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in English, and has read all the Western economic theorists. But he jumps from question to question, it is difficult to see the way his mind moves. He did not appear to be very clever.'

'He impresses you as a charming, friendly person, good at small talk,' said a Western diplomat. 'But I was also impressed by his lack of factual competence. He jumps from one topic to another, tells anecdotes, uses his foreign languages, and recites poems. You think 'is it going to go on like this?' and try to get him back on stream. But most of the time this fails. He's always able to get out of serious discussion quickly.'

The difficulty for the frail Mr Deng is that there is no obvious alternative. 'The tendency is to focus excessively on Mr Jiang and his weakness,' said another diplomat. 'He has no deep connections with the army, lacks a party power base, and does not seem to have any policy ideas of his own. That's true, but name me one senior leader in China who does not have some flaw as a successor.'

Born in July 1926 in Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province, into what is officially described as an 'old-style intellectual's family', Mr Jiang was brought up by an uncle who died a revolutionary martyr's death. Mr Jiang graduated in electrical engineering and, in the Fifties, spent a year at Moscow's Stalin vehicle factory. Stories about his life during the Cultural Revolution are vague, suggesting he may well have been an activist.

Official portraits stress his human qualities. An old colleague recently described him as a selfless room-mate, who was 'never seen to drink, smoke, play cards or chess' and who washed his own clothes. He is said to be fond of music and literature. His linguistic abilities have brought him the nickname 'four languages' for his Chinese, Russian, English and Romanian.

His political mentor was the revolutionary elder Li Xiannian. However, official texts often curiously deny that Li was his father-in-law. Mr Jiang's star began to rise in 1982, when he joined the Communist Party Central Committee, ascending to Politburo membership in 1987. But he was only elevated to the most important body, the Politburo standing committee, when he became party general-secretary.

How long will he last after Mr Deng's death? That may well depend on whether the army has to choose between Mr Jiang and the possiblity of chaos. 'It is an inherently unstable system. He will occupy his core position with the sufferance of his peers,' said a Peking-watcher.

Patronage and survival is an imprecise science in Chinese politics. It is said, for instance, that the hardline party elder, Chen Yun, has been impressed by Mr Jiang ever since the younger man called by one day and was able to mend his broken television set.

(Photograph omitted)