Deng team remains in charge A weak coalition runs a nation accustomed to one-man rule

February 20, 1997|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- The death of Deng Xiaoping leaves in place a Chinese leadership that he anointed before effectively leaving the scene in 1994.

But with Deng gone, few are sure how the coalition will fare centered around 70-year-old Jiang Zemin, who wears three hats as China's Communist Party general-secretary, president and military boss.

Who will fine-tune the collective leadership when one of its members retires or becomes too ambitious? Who will pull the strings from behind the scenes as Deng did so masterfully from 1978 to 1994?

"The Chinese power structure needs a leader," said Lee Yee, editor of the Nineties. a Hong Kong China-watching magazine. "China is a country run by personal relations, not constitutions or laws.

"Laws and courts do not resolve problems, only a leader can do this," Lee said. "So someone has to take control or else China will descend into chaos."

Since its founding 48 years ago, the current Chinese state has been dominated by two figures: Mao Tse-tung and Deng, both professional revolutionaries who ended up running the world's most populous land.

Mao united China under a strong central government for the first time in a century after the Communists swept to power in 1949. Deng took power two years after Mao's death in 1976, implementing economic policies that have created one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

When Mao died in 1976, Deng was the logical heir. He required just two years to depose Mao's anointed heir, the hapless Hua Guofeng.

Now, however, no one of Deng's stature lies waiting to ambush Deng's heir, President Jiang, and the handful of Soviet-trained technocrats who make up the "third generation" of Communist leaders.

Given the lack of an obvious kingmaker, China is faced with three possibilities:

* The emergence of Jiang as the new paramount leader, implying a level of ruthlessness not previously shown by him.

* Continuation of the collective leadership, implying that China has matured beyond the need for great leaders.

* The emergence of another supreme leader.

The most likely scenario, many China-watchers believe, is that the current collective leadership will continue for a few years but that someone, probably not Jiang, will emerge as first among equals.

To be sure, Jiang fancies the role as Deng's successor. He already was angling to have himself promoted at this year's 15th party congress, from the Communist Party's general-secretary to its chairman, a position closely identified with "Chairman" Mao.

He also has fashioned a campaign to fill China's moral vacuum with a "spiritual civilization" meant to turn the tide on the corruption, rudeness and greed produced by Deng's economic reforms.

But Jiang has been stymied by many of his colleagues, who do not want to lose power to another supreme leader. He is less a kingmaker than an adept seeker of the political middle, moving quickly to the center and then fashioning a consensus.

Timid consensus

In the two years since Deng bowed out, the rule by consensus has been stable but timid.

No significant economic reforms have taken place in over two years, while harmless expressions of opinion are met with brute force.

"There has been a political paralysis, whether it's infighting in the center or a conflict between the center and the provinces. Major initiatives are stalled," said Tai Ming Cheung, a Hong Kong political analysts for Kim Eng Securities.

Some analysts see the ultimate emergence of another paramount leader as inevitable, but not immediate.

Few of the tired and predictable "challengers" to Jiang have shown any spunk or willingness to grab power from the man who currently commands the government, the party and the military.

The most likely successor to Jiang is Qiao Shi, the 71-year-old head of the National People's Congress, a rubber-stamp legislature that Qiao has been trying to build into a more credible parliament.

Many analysts believe that Qiao has a distinct advantage with his background as head of China's intelligence and security forces, giving him access to the dossiers of his rivals and potentially the ruthlessness needed to run China.

Other challengers exist. Premier Li Peng, for example, is widely respected among the bureaucrats involved in the nuts-and-bolts running of China. The 67-year-old is due to retire this year as premier and may be eager for a new role.

Li, however, is closely identified with the Tiananmen massacre of dissidents in 1989, which tends to turn his trips to Western countries into public relations nightmares and makes him unpopular among educated city dwellers who vividly recall the hundreds of anti-government protesters massacred in Beijing and other cities.

Long shots include Yang Shangkun, the energetic 90-year-old general and former president; Zhu Rongji, the country's economics czar; and Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party secretary-general who was purged for allowing the 1989 protests to take place.

Other challenges may come from younger, as-yet unknown leaders.

Awaiting crisis

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