Palace Intrigues

For those who are into Pekingology, President Jiang Zemin's recent bedside reading has provided rich material for speculation. According to Jiang watchers in Beijing's diplomatic community, the president was stunned to hear of Boris Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation. The Russian leader had just been in Beijing, bearhugging with the Chinese leaders and commiserating over the NATO-led war in Kosovo. Diplomats think the resignation was such a shock to Jiang that it set off a bout of soul-searching. The president reportedly asked his aides to bring him books on Russia, including David Remnick's "Lenin's Tomb," which chronicles the chaos that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. The book's implication: leaders who cling to power too long jeopardize their legacies. Yeltsin's resignation "got Jiang ruminating about his place in history," says one Western diplomat in Beijing. That, he adds, helped Jiang decide to find a way "to keep his hand on the throttle."

This is the real agenda at the National People's Congress, which opens this week in Beijing: the succession struggle. There is plenty of grumbling that Jiang is setting himself up as some kind of latter-day emperor. Indeed, each of the items on the official agenda of China's Parliament--from a tough new stand on Taiwan and fighting corruption to economic development in the country's Western regions--is now tangled up in Jiang's apparent obsession with his legacy. Although, according to the Constitution, Jiang doesn't have to give up the presidency until 2003, the murky process of hammering out a smooth succession--through factional backbiting, backroom dealmaking and consensus building--has begun. In the corridors of the Great Hall of the People, the delegates will be buzzing about just how long Jiang will stick around. "Jiang wants to keep his hand in [the power game], and he's snooping around for options," says one Western diplomat in Beijing.

Jiang is hinting that he doesn't want to go. He has signaled that he will pass the presidency on to his anointed successor, Vice President Hu Jintao. But Jiang holds two other, even more powerful positions, as secretary-general of the Communist Party and as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission. In July, he stressed when visiting Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi that the party chief's post has no fixed tenure. That comment triggered speculation that Jiang plans to opt for yet another five-year term as party head. Such hints have met "extreme opposition," notes one diplomat in Beijing. "If he really tried it, people would draw the Brezhnev analogy," referring to the power-hungry Moscow leader whose sclerotic policies accelerated the Soviet Union's collapse.

Beijing's political elite are annoyed by Jiang's efforts to create a "cult of Jiang," as one Chinese reporter put it. He started last year with a political campaign, dubbed the Three Stresses, aimed at reinforcing ideological rectitude. Last October, at the National Day parade, three groups of floats and pompom-waving marchers extolled the achievements of first Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping and finally Jiang. Last month the party published a book that highlighted Jiang's "great leader" dreams, with the catchy title "Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin on Ideological and Political Work." "Who does he think he is?" says one member of Beijing's elite. "Just because old Deng remained in power until he died doesn't mean Jiang can do the same." At the very least, Jiang is expected to cling to his title as head of the military commission, just as Deng did. Jiang's current term ends with the 16th Party Congress in the autumn of 2002. But according to one Hong Kong media report, his aides have already occupied an entire floor in the lavish new commission headquarters, for possible use as his command center in years to come.

Frustration over Jiang's power play broke into the open late last year, when former Parliament head Qiao Shi began indirectly attacking Jiang's ambitions. Qiao was quoted citing the late Deng's call for elderly cadres to retire after two terms (advice that, at least in spirit, Deng himself ignored). Qiao toured the country, claiming that his own retirement from the NPC in 1997 was part of an "arrangement" whereby all senior cadres would step down when their time came. (Politburo retirement age is supposed to be 72; Qiao was then 73--the same age as Jiang now.) Without changes, Qiao reportedly warned, "explosive disasters" could erupt.

The fight against corruption, which will be a prominent issue in the NPC, has become part of the political tussle, too. When Beijing's anticorruption watchdogs uncovered a $10 billion smuggling operation based in the port city of Xiamen, Jiang instructed them to pursue it "as far as it goes." But when rumors swirled that the wife of Beijing Mayor Jia Qingling was involved, Jiang's drive seemed to wane. Jia is not just a Jiang protege; he and his wife are the president's friends. (Jiang was one of their matchmakers, says one foreign diplomat.) Jiang brusquely ordered the inquiry to be wrapped up. The government and Jia's wife, Lin Youfang, denied any wrongdoing on her part. But the damage was done. The implication that cronies are "untouchable" in graft probes is "a disaster," says one Western diplomat. "It damages the leaders' credibility, and causes even more corruption."

With scrutiny focused on relatives of senior cadres, Jiang may want to hang on to power to protect his family members. His eldest son, Mianheng, 47, a U.S.-educated engineer, has developed a reputation as Shanghai's telecoms czar. Though the party frowns on leaders' children profiting in business, Mianheng became chief executive of a state telecommunications company, chair of a high-tech investment firm and director of two other Internet companies in Shanghai. When press reports about Mianheng's high profile surfaced, China's high-tech community was abuzz: "People went 'Oh, my God'," says a Western business consultant in Beijing, "and President Jiang said, 'Son, you're getting too close to Western companies'." Late last year the younger Jiang took up the vice presidency of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has yet to sever links with the telecommunications firm.

The anticorruption campaign has deteriorated into mudslinging. Both Jiang and reformist Prime Minister Zhu Rongji recently exhorted cadres to take "responsibility" for the entrepreneurial exploits of their relatives and cohorts. But when the Xiamen smuggling crackdown turned on some of Zhu's rivals last summer, they reportedly began trying--unsuccessfully--to drum up investigations into the prime minister's relatives.

Even Beijing's recent stiff policy toward Taiwan--another key NPC topic--seems to stem from Jiang's quest for political weight. Jiang has made it clear that he wants to be remembered as the man who reunified China. Both Hong Kong and Macau have reverted to China on his watch. Recently Beijing threatened to use military force against Taiwan if reunification talks are delayed "indefinitely." Chinese strategists have begun to moot a concrete time frame--dates between 2007 and 2020 have been mentioned, according to a source in policymaking circles--for Taipei and Beijing to hash out a deal. Beijing's tough stance seems to reflect, in part, Jiang's insecurity. "In order to prove you have authority, you must display it from time to time," says a Western visitor who recently met with senior officials.

Beijing's succession drama comes at a shaky moment. The leaders worry that Taiwan seems to be drifting toward independence. Meanwhile, rapid modernization across China has triggered social disruptions and corruption, which are eroding the leadership's authority. Huge economic disparities between the rich in the coastal provinces and the poor in China's interior could erupt into unrest. Tensions between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities in the West are also growing. In an attempt to address such problems, the leadership will unveil a multibillion-dollar project at the NPC to "develop the West." The objective: "to smash our enemies who want to use poverty and contradictions between races to create a Kosovo-style crisis," says Chen Dongsheng, one of the policy's architects. The risk: if the leaders are locked in power struggles, the country could become even more unmanageable. Not much of a legacy, after all.