Deng's heirs hold conclave to chart the succession

As China's paramount leader fades away, the battle to takeover is hotting up, writes Teresa Poole in Peking
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The Independent Online
Behind closed doors, in the leadership villas hidden in the hills above the seaside resort of Beidaihe, an election season "with Chinese characteristics" is under way. China may have one of the world's most opaque political systems, but with only a year or so to go until the 15th Communist Party Congress, there are top jobs to play for and personal power bases to be maintained.

Every August, the inner clique of China's party and military leadership gathers at Beidaihe, north-east of Peking, for a conclave. This year the members will forge a consensus on the policy document for autumn's annual party plenum, at which an ideological blast in favour of "spiritual civilisation" is expected to be the main tenet. But all eyes are looking towards the full congress scheduled for autumn next year, an event which takes place only once every five years.

Critical decisions will then have to be made, including the choice of successor to Li Peng as Prime Minister, a probable restructuring of the party hierarchy and key appointments to the generals who sit on the Central Military Commission. "The next party congress will be such an important one in terms of personnel and structures," said one Peking diplomat.

One man, it is safe to assume, is not at Beidaihe this year. But no debate will take place without someone invoking his name. Deng Xiaoping has defied so many predictions of his imminent demise, and yesterday celebrated his 92nd birthday. His health is frail, and it is hard to imagine he has a direct political input these days, but even as an ailing paramount leader he still hovers over the party's decision makers.

Mr Deng's survival is both a help and a hindrance to President Jiang Zemin, the anointed "core" of the leadership. While Mr Deng lives, it is difficult for anyone to challenge his choice of Mr Jiang as head of state, party chief and head of the army. But the endurance of Mr Deng also restrains Mr Jiang's ability to depart from his mentor's path and put his own stamp on policy.

Most analysts believe that the longer Mr Deng survives, the better it is for Mr Jiang. However, the next year will be a testing time for the President, as he tries to secure the top-level personnel changes he needs to buttress his position.

Analysts believe there is broad agreement within the leadership about continuing reforms, and that the real debate revolves round the pace of change. But there are factions which must be appeased, as personal ambition runs rampant and contenders manoeuvre for jobs.

The first key decision for the congress is who will be the new Prime Minister. Under the constitution, Mr Li must retire at the National People's Congress (NPC) in March 1988, having served two terms. Potential successors include Zhu Rongji, Li Lanqing, and Wu Bangguo.

Mr Zhu, the economics tsar, will be 68 this October, which could mean his age is against him, although his appointment would mean economic reform is on track. Li Lanqing, 64, looks a strong contender, but is not a member of the standing committee of the politburo.

Mr Wu, at 55, has age on his side, but may be too identified with the Shanghai clique to win support. Mr Jiang has been criticised for promoting too many colleagues from his home base.

Then there is the question of what to do with Li Peng, a political fighter who shows no sign of wanting a quieter life. There is much speculation that the structure of the Communist Party may be due for changes. At the moment, Mr Jiang heads the party as general secretary. In the past, the top job was chairman. Analysts suggest that if Mr Jiang were to become chairman of the party, Mr Li could sit as a vice-chairman.

This might also lead to a change for the man often considered the most powerful back-room player in any shift of power after Mr Deng's death. Qiao Shi, former chief party disciplinarian and now chairman of the National People's Congress, is seen as the leader of the faction arguing for greater "rule by law". One Western diplomat said: "Qiao Shi is more and more to the fore in speculation about around whom a challenge to Jiang Zemin might be constructed."

At 71, Mr Qiao might be expected to step down from the NPC, and emerge as a vice-chairman of the party. But this could lead to a bitter fight with Mr Li over who would be senior.

Mr Jiang also has to juggle the demands of the military, whose support for his leadership is imperative. The party congress must decide a new line-up for the party's Central Military Commission, which controls the army. Mr Jiang is chairman, but two of the four vice-chairmen, Generals Liu Huaqing and Zhang Zhen, are due to retire. Both are Long March veterans who have maintained a firm influence on the party.

Mr Jiang has strong cards in his favour. Next year he will preside over the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, which is being used to whip up Chinese nationalism and portray him as the successor to Chairman Mao and Mr Deng.

On the economic front, inflation has fallen to acceptable levels and the United States is holding out the carrot of a possible exchange of state visits - just the sort of theatre appreciated by an heir apparent.

Contenders for the throne

Jiang Zemin: Anointed 'core' of the leadership

Qiao Shi: To the fore in speculation about challenge

Li Peng: 18 months left to serve as Prime Minister