Leaderless Chinese battle openly for a place at the top

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The Independent Online
Teresa Poole Peking

The Emperor is dead, and for the first time in years there is no-one in China with sufficient political muscle to insist on who gets what top jobs. The 15th Communist Party Congress, the first full party gathering since the death of Deng Xiaoping in February, starts tomorrow after unprecedented last-minute wrangling over personnel changes at the top of the Chinese power structure.

"The difference between this upcoming 15th party congress and all the party congresses held before is that this time we lack a god, we lack a great leader who can be widely recognised as the leader," said Wang Shan, a political author with links to senior party officials.

A Western diplomat agreed that "various solutions keep on going round and round" about personnel changes. "It is rather unusual in that normally party congresses are forums for announcing decision which are made beforehand. Things are not quite as smooth as they wish to have them portrayed for a unified, dignified, leadership," he added.

In theory, all top job movements should have been finalised last month when the leadership decamped to the Beidaihe seaside resort for its annual holiday. But this year a consensus proved elusive. A full party congress is held only once every five years in China and must put in place a new party Central Committee, Politburo, and all-powerful Standing Committee for the next five years, as well as agreeing next year's government changes, especially finding a job for the outgoing prime minister, Li Peng.

All this was supposed to give President Jiang Zemin an opportunity to impose his authority as the "core" of the post-Deng leadership. But Mr Jiang lacks the authoritarian power of Deng or Chairman Mao, and this leads to the sort of squabbling for jobs that one sees in more open systems.

The optimists say this is all part of China's evolution. "Personally I believe that today's situation, both for China and for the party itself, is a kind of progress," said Mr Wang. "It is not such a good thing if before the party congress opens, we already know who will occupy what positions." But the party would have prefered to sort all this out weeks ago.

The problem is that, under the constitution, Mr Li must step down as prime minister next March, after two termsin office. Zhu Rongji, currently a vice-prime minister in charge of the economy, is expected to replace him as the prime minister, but a new role is needed for Mr Li.

Mr Li is second only to Mr Jiang in the power hierarchy, and intends to remain so.

At first it was thought Mr Jiang might re-invent the position of party chairman with Mr Li as his deputy, but this irritated some party elders. Then it was proposed that Mr Li could take over the chairmanship of the National People's Congress from Qiao Shi - only Mr Qiao, who has less than close relations with Mr Jiang, did not want to budge.

Eleventh-hour negotiations have also continued on whether to expand the Standing Committee, and on new appointments to the Politburo. Mr Jiang is anxious to have as many allies as possible on these bodies, to secure his position into the next century. "I suppose it makes for a more democratic congress if some decisions are actually made at the congress," said the diplomat.