Magnificent Seven's secretive struggle

Behind the scenes of the People's Congress, the jockeying is under way, writes Teresa Poole

Peking - China's election year formally kicks off this morning with the start of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's parliament.

No one need expect surprises; the 3,000 delegates will rubber stamp new legislation in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's death just as they have always done. But behind the scenes the real jockeying for positions is starting, with several top jobs up for grabs over the next 12 months.

Even without Deng's death, this was always going to be the year when President Jiang Zemin had to cement his position as first among equals in the post-Deng era.

But, as in the West, Chinese politics involves a considerable element of keeping your allies happy and containing your enemies. In China this year it is a question of who gets what position. One Western diplomat said this week: "There is still a lot to be fought over, but this does not mean they will fall out in some overt fashion."

A problem with interpreting Chinese power structures is that job titles have often counted for little. Thus, Deng held no formal position after 1990 but remained the most influential person in China.

In contrast, Mr Jiang has had every possible title heaped on him, including head of state, party chief, and military commander, to bolster his position as a seemingly weak leader.

Another confusing factor is that the important state personnel decisions due to be implemented at the NPC next March, such as the selection of a new prime minister, will in fact be made at the Communist party congress this Autumn.

The manoeuvrings ahead of that congress start today with this year's NPC. A full congress is held only once every five years, with annual plenum meetings in between. It is the most important date in China's five-year political cycle.

State, party and military top personnel shuffle the top jobs between themselves. As the chart shows, the same faces appear on both sides of the supposed divide between the Communist party and the organs of state government.

Mr Jiang's face appears as head of the party, the state, and the party's Central Military Commission (CMC), which controls the army. He heads the "Magnificent Seven" of Chinese politics - the members of the standing committee of the Politburo, which is the most powerful party grouping.

Two of the seven, Mr Jiang and General Liu, are also on the party CMC. Five of the seven, Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Qiao Shi, Li Ruihuan, and Zhu Rongji, all have senior state positions.

The personnel decisions which have to be made this year include: Will Mr Jiang keep all three top jobs? Who will take over as prime minister in March 1998 when Li Peng steps down?

Leading contenders are the politburo member and Jiang ally, Wu Bangguo, and vice prime ministers, Li Lanqing and Zhu Rongji. What new position can Mr Jiang offer Mr Li to secure his loyalty?

Current thinking is that Mr Jiang wants to re-invent the post of party chairman (a position held by Mao Zedong) for himself, and Mr Li would be offered a vice-chairmanship.

But would that satisfy Mr Li, whose unpopularity seems to rule him out for any high profile representative post, such as president?

What will Mr Jiang do with Mr Qiao, a man billed as a quasi-reformer who has built a power base as head of the NPC? These two men do not get along, and this is Mr Jiang's most challenging gamble.

There is nothing in the constitution which says Mr Qiao cannot continue at the NPC, but he is expected to step down because of his age. Would he be satisfied with another deputy chairmanship of the party?

Will Mr Jiang finally be able to retire Generals Liu and Zhang from the party CMC, and install two more of his military allies?

Shuffling the pack will also mean bringing in a crop of new faces over the next year, the men who will lead China in the 21st century. For the moment, Mr Jiang remains the favourite.( Graphic omitted )

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