HONG KONG — As top politicians in the Communist Party of China consult and confer with each other at Beidaihe during their annual seaside retreat, one key question facing them is whether 76-year-old President and CPC Secretary General Jiang Zemin will seek to extend himself in office.

More broadly, the main issues confronting them will be the long-heralded transfer of power from the third generation of CPC leaders to the fourth generation. The consensus that will be sought during this year’s consultations at Beidaihe is particularly critical because it precedes the 16th Party Congress in the autumn, at which appointments for the next five years will be made.

The extent to which the third generation led by Jiang is seeking to retain power is obviously a key and potentially destabilizing issue. The extent to which it will be frankly discussed at Beidaihe is not known.

Chinese Communist politics remain as secretive as ever. Although not a hermit kingdom like its ally North Korea and not as good generally as the Vietnamese Communists at keeping politics hidden from view, China, in this respect, is still not a modern state. The politics of the world’s largest nation are impenetrable to sight, or to insight.

No Chinese journalist — let alone any foreign correspondent — will be called into Jiang’s or Hu Jintao’s Beidaihe bungalow, and given an off-the-record briefing on Politburo maneuvers. Whatever information is provided will almost certainly conceal, rather than reveal, complex CPC reality.

So rumors remain the political currency of the republic. Analysis must be speculative rather than informed.

Judged by the latest gossip on the Beijing grapevine, Jiang is seeking to retain his post as secretary general of the CPC for a third five-year term.

These rumors, which have been widespread lately, contradict the earlier indications that fourth-generation leader, 59-year-old Vice President Hu Jintao, would become CPC secretary general at the 16th Congress, before also becoming state president at the National Peoples Congress, or NPC, session next spring.

However it was never anticipated that the turnover to the fourth generation would be complete. All along, the speculation has been that Jiang would probably seek to retain his third job, as chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission.

Conceivably, these latest rumors that Jiang may hang on as CPC secretary general are aimed at increasing the pressure for a compromise whereby he does keep the military job, which, of course, involves ultimate control of the People’s Liberation Army.

A complicating factor is that the current number two in the CPC hierarchy, NPC Chairman Li Peng, will also be seeking to retain influence, if not office. For Li, a complete change of generations could be threatening.

Such a change might increase the likelihood of a “reversal of verdicts” on the Beijing Massacre in June 1989, or of a thorough inquiry into the corruption that has accompanied the massive Three Gorges Dam project. Were either of these eventualities to come about, Li would be a likely target.

But the biting irony in the Chinese political situation is this: Even if there was a complete transfer of all party and state positions to the third generation, the older leaders might still retain influence and power. This is because of the Chinese tradition that power follows the man as well as the office. This tradition was perfectly illustrated in the early 1990s when Deng Xiaoping renewed China’s reform process even though the only post he then held was vice president of the Chinese Bridge (as in the card game) Association.

The formal office-holders appeared unable to push reform, but the already retired Deng did. At that stage, Deng did not cling on to power so much as power clung on to him.

Deng at least had the vision and the foresight to see that indefinite tenure of official positions by CPC politicians, notably Mao Zedong, had been disastrous for China. Deng advocated term limits, at least for state positions and by implication for party ones as well. Deng practiced what he preached on himself. He did not cling on to any official positions.

Yet he remained the supreme arbiter of Chinese politics. When crises arose — notably the Tiananmen demonstrations in May and June 1989 — the party turned to him, in part at the urging of elderly leaders who were themselves already out of office.

So will power cling to Jiang too? No doubt, he hopes that it will. But those rumors of his retaining the CPC secretary generalship could indicate that he feels the need to hang on to office as well.

Similarly, the likely elevation, at the 16th Congress, of Jiang’s “Three Representations Theory” to rank ideologically with Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory could be aimed at giving Jiang the same degree of postretirement power as Deng. Alternately, it could be part of pressure tactics aimed at making sure that Jiang still retains leadership posts.

The danger remains that too much hanging on, both in power and influence, by the CPC’s third generation will probably give China a bumpy, even a destabilizing, ride.

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