Peking alleys echo with intrigue

In the hutong (alleys) of Peking, the hushed question on everyone's lips is: who will be next? Nearly two weeks after the "resignation" of the city's party chief, Chen Xitong, the rumour-mill is working overtime about the political purge under way in the capital. Suicides, power struggles, the secret detention of senior officials, alleged large-scale corruption - modern-day political drama in China has it all.

The old emperor - Deng Xiaoping - is fading and may be too weak to exert any direct influence on daily events. Those who want to inherit his mantle are now openly manoeuvring under the guise of a much-needed crackdown on rampant corruption at the highest levels. At this stage, there are more questions than answers. Is this an effective way for President Jiang Zemin to consolidate his power base, or has he overplayed his hand? Is this a foretaste of a destabilising power struggle that will erupt when Mr Deng finally dies?

Back in mid-February, Zhou Guanwu, the head of Peking's industrial giant, Shougang Capital Iron and Steel, resigned a day after his son, the head of two stockmarket-listed subsidiaries, was detained on corruption charges. This was the first strike at the heart of the political lite: Mr Zhou was a close ally of Mr Deng and his son was a business associate of Deng Zhifang, one of the ailing patriarch's sons.

Rumours also started circulating that a number of senior Peking municipal government officials had been detained in corruption investigations over property transactions in the city. They included former aides to the mayor, Li Qiyan, and to Mr Chen. All then went quiet for the National People's Congress, in March, which closed with two allies of Mr Jiang being appointed to key positions as new vice-prime ministers.

On 4 April, political intrigue turned to tragedy when one of Peking's two executive vice-mayors, Wang Baosen, committed suicide after coming under investigation for "economic crimes". He was the most senior official to commit suicide since the Cultural Revolution. Very soon after the news became public, however, it was overshadowed by the death of 90-year-old Chen Yun, the hardline party elder who had come to symbolise conservative opposition to the Deng reform programme.

Then, on 27 April came the "resignation" and house arrest of Chen Xitong who, according to the official statement, was taking "complete responsibility" for Wang Baosen's suicide. A Politburo member, Mr Chen was probably among the most powerful 20 party officials in China. His son, Chen Xiaotong, is also said to be in detention. There are reports that dozens of other Peking government cadres are also being held and there are rumours of another suicide.

Most unusual in this saga was a statement issued last week by Deng Zhifang denying Hong Kong media reports that he had been questioned as part of the government's anti-corruption drive. Sons of paramount leaders do not usually respond to press reports. Could Mr Jiang really be targeting the most princely of "red princelings" while Mr Deng was still alive?

According to the most obvious interpretation, Mr Jiang is using the anti- corruption campaign to purge his hardline foes, particularly Chen Xitong, in the Peking municipal government. This is a popular move: Mr Chen is widely disliked in the city for his support of the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations in June 1989 and despised for heading one of the most corrupt local governments in the country.

Factional politics and inner-palace power plays are none the less the centre of speculation. The man chosen to replace Mr Chen was Wei Jianxing, the head of the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and one of the rare political figures in China these days to retain a reputation for honesty.

Rather than the job going to an ally of Mr Jiang, Mr Wei is a longtime associate of Qiao Shi, the increasingly powerful former internal security chief who now heads the National People's Congress.

Most analysts now look to Mr Qiao to play an important role after Mr Deng's death, certainly as a power-broker and possibly as a main player. At the moment he seems to be aligned with Mr Jiang. But some diplomats suggest that Mr Jiang is weakening his own position by moving too fast and too soon against his perceived political rivals and that Mr Qiao - a far more impressive figure - could be the final beneficiary.

Mr Qiao certainly looks a lot stronger than Li Peng, the hardline Prime Minister, who is still much loathed for the Tiananmen massacre. Chen Yun's death and then Chen Xitong's downfall have undermined the hardliners. At the send-off for Mr Jiang on his way to Moscow this week, Mr Li's smile looked even more forced than usual.

Who will be next to tumble? Peking's mayor, Li Qiyan, and the remaining executive deputy, Zhang Baifa, look the most vulnerable, despite their oaths of loyalty to Mr Jiang since their party boss was detained. If this is the start of an end-game ahead of Deng Xiaoping's death, it could prove to be a long hot summer for many cadres.