The Communist Party of China’s leadership-succession process remains shrouded in secrecy, but six broad scenarios have been identified by China-watchers as likely to unfold in the next six months as that process is completed at the 16th Party Congress starting Nov. 8, and then at the National Peoples’ Congress next spring.

A new book by professor Andrew Nathan and journalist Bruce Gilley, which is to be published soon in the United States, claims, on the basis of secret CPC documents, that the already-agreed succession will be smooth, and that President Jiang Zemin will retire from all his positions.

Not everyone is convinced, however. For one thing, the documents upon which the book is based were smuggled out of China earlier this year, whereas signs that Jiang will hang on to power have recently multiplied.

The truth remains that no one knows for sure what is going on within the CPC. Many China-watchers maintain a certainty regarding the succession that they probably cannot sustain.

One of them insists that there is a Beijing Plan and a Shanghai Plan for the succession. But does he really know? Does anyone? Are those anonymous “party sources close to the leadership who cannot be identified,” upon which the new Nathan-Gilley book evidently also relies, real or imaginary? What is the political motive behind the secret documents’ disclosures? In the final analysis, the accurate information upon which a sound judgment can be made is simply not available.

This does not stop a variety of fascinating scenarios being advanced in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas, and it is possible to calculate what consequences would flow from them if they turned out to reflect reality.

* The first scenario assumes, mainly from the way his personality cult has been built up in China’s controlled media in the last two months, that Jiang is determined to retain control of the party for the time being in the interests of stability. It is postulated that while he wants to start the transfer of power and position to the next generation of leaders, he is not anxious to conclude it quickly.

So he will propose a change to the CPC constitution that revives the post of party chairman, which was abandoned by the CPC after Mao Zedong’s death. After this change is agreed upon, at the congress 76-year-old Jiang will become chairman of the party and retain his chairmanship of the CPC Military Commission. Vice President Hu Jintao, 59, will become vice chairman of the party and of the military, but will become general secretary of the CPC as well.

The complications arising from this scenario explain why the CPC congress has been pushed back to November. Jiang would stay in command. Hu’s position would be seen to be weak by comparison.

* A second scenario is that Jiang does not want to be the only member of the third generation staying in power, and will therefore try to get NPC chairman Li Peng and Premier Zhu Rongji to stay in power with him. This maneuver would be extremely divisive and represent no succession at all. The date for the party congress might be put back further to 2003.

* A third scenario is that Jiang is more interested in retaining the power and privileges of the state presidency rather than remaining in control of the party. So it is agreed that the state constitution will be altered to make a third term constitutional. Meanwhile Hu becomes CPC general secretary and also chairman of the Military Commission — although Jiang might want to retain that post too.

All three scenarios involve China going back along a road it was expected to leave behind — that of changing constitutions to meet the exigencies of power and personality. The CPC’s recent achievement of power-sharing without excessive factionalism would almost certainly be negated.

* The fourth and more widely suggested scenario is that Jiang will remain general secretary of the party and chairman of the Military Commission, while Hu will be able to look forward to becoming state president next March at the NPC session.

But Hu’s expertise primarily lies in party matters. This would be no succession at all from his point of view. Were he to accept it, his party status would be diminished — a fatal weakness for an incoming leader. The next generation of party officials in the provinces, who have seen their future in terms of supporting Hu, would begin to wonder if they had backed the wrong horse.

* Even a fifth scenario, under which Hu would become CPC general secretary but Jiang would retain his chairmanship of the Military Commission, would have its obvious drawbacks. The military would not like being subordinate to a man who was no longer in charge overall. Hu would not like being everywhere in charge, except in the crucial military arena.

All these scenarios are attached to another arena of struggle, the composition of the all-powerful standing committee of the CPC Politburo. Were the retire-over-70 rule strictly applied, Jiang, Li Peng, Zhu, Wei Jiangxing and Li Lanqing would all retire in November, leaving only Hu and Li Ruihuan as holdovers. Jiang may be insisting on his proteges becoming members. Hu will seek a standing committee that he can lead.

* This leaves a infinitely preferable sixth scenario: Jiang and his “third generation” colleagues give up all their party and state posts to the “fourth generation.”

If this were to happen, China would take a great leap forward toward institutionalized politics under which factions are subordinate to constitutions, and power-using takes precedence over power-seeking and power-grabbing.

Skepticism remains whether this will happen. On the one hand, since power in China tends to follow the man rather than the office, Jiang or other members of the third generation might still wields great influence, as Deng Xiaoping did after he was nominally retired.

On the other hand, the history of the CPC has yet to record a completely smooth leadership transition and, in China particularly, history does tend to repeat itself.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.