The Death of Deng: Official successor has no clear rival for top job

After the years of despotism, China marches on into the great unknown: Teresa Poole looks at the man most likely to lead China into the 21st century
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Following the death last night of Deng Xiaoping, one man moves straight into the spotlight. As far back as three years ago, when China's top officials celebrated the centenary of Mao Tse-tung's birth, President Jiang Zemin stood proud on the podium of the Great Hall of the People.

He addressed the 10,000-strong audience, clearly positioning himself as paramount- leader-in-waiting.

Sadly for Mr Jiang, 70, the historical analogy most often drawn for him is not with Chairman Mao, nor Deng Xiaoping, but with Hua Guofeng. Mr Hua was Chairman Mao's chosen successor in 1976 - but it only took two years for Deng Xiaoping to usurp him and seize the reins of power. Mr Jiang is similarly seen by many as a transitional figure rather than a future paramount leader.

However, he should not be dismissed too lightly; Mr Deng's long decline before death means Mr Jiang has had ample time to position himself for any looming power struggle. He has recently shown every sign of being determined to hang on to all his positions if he can.

Mr Jiang was Mr Deng's third choice as heir-apparent. The two previous candidates, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both reformists, fell by the wayside during the 1980s, the latter was sacked after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Mr Jiang was catapulted through the Communist Party ranks to become general secretary. He was a compromise figure who was tolerable to both reformers and hardliners, and to boost his standing, was swiftly designated by Mr Deng as the "core" of the "third generation" of leaders who would steer China into the 21st century.

By 1993, at Mr Deng's instigation, Mr Jiang had also picked up the titles of commander-in-chief of China's armed forces, and President of the People's Republic.

In China's opaque political system, however, job titles are no guarantee of status. Political power is more often linked to well-tested alliances and an effective client network behind the scenes. On this score, Mr Jiang is less secure. Has he the vision to lead the country towards a more mature system of government? Many Western analysts are unconvinced.

Born in 1926 in Jiangsu province, Mr Jiang's father was a martyr of the revolution who joined the party in 1930 and "sacrificed himself early on". In the official history, Mr Jiang "when young engaged in underground work" for the revolutionaries, joined the party in 1947 and graduated the next year in electrical engineering at Shanghai's Communications University. In 1955, like many of his generation, he was sent to the Soviet Union, and spent six years at the Stalin Automobile Plant in Moscow.

Back in China, he held administrative posts in various factories and research institutes until the Cultural Revolution, when he was sidelined but, according to the official histories, never lost his faith in communism.

Mr Jiang's rise to power started in 1982 when he was elected to the Central Committee. By 1985, he was the mayor of Shanghai. He joined the Politburo in 1987, and became Shanghai party chief the following year. He was only promoted to the Politburo standing committee in June 1989, due to his unexpected elevation to the position of party general secretary after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The state propaganda machine has laboured to create an appropriate image of Mr Jiang as a man of the people. Official portraits describe him as "modest and courteous" and well- versed in classical Chinese poetry. He speaks English, Russian and Romanian, and likes art.

Foreign visitors often complained that the President rarely moved beyond pleasantries and formulaic restatements of official policy. According to one Western diplomat: "He has little grasp of detail, and the conversation jumps from one subject to the next. He likes to show off his languages, but meetings rarely yield much."

Another Peking diplomat said: "I've seen a lot of Jiang Zemin over the years. I don't think you can judge him entirely on the basis of the experience that the Westerner has in meetings with him.

"He may be a lot more effective and incisive in his purely Chinese roles. I think the verdict on him is sort of an unproven verdict."

On the military front, the president has none of the revolutionary stature of the Long March generation, and no army background. So over the past three years he has actively courted the generals, making regular high- profile visits to army units, and increasing the defence budget. The tacit support of the military will prove crucial given his weak political base. Mr Jiang's strongest card is his official designation as Mr Deng's successor. In the short term, he will also benefit from the fact that there is no obvious alternative candidate for the top job.

The Prime Minister, Li Peng, is much hated because of his support of the Tiananmen Square shootings. Zhu Rongji, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic reforms, is widely respected among the new generation of technocrats, but has made powerful enemies during his attempts to cool the economy.

Qiao Shi, the head of the National People's Congress, is increasingly powerful but so far appears aligned with the President. At the moment, Mr Jiang has no clear rival.