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China: Passing the torch wasn't easy
By Zhu Zhan

HONG KONG - Not eager to leave office, China's powerful commander-in-chief Jiang Zemin only tendered his resignation as chairman of the Central Military Commission two weeks before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plenum convened last week. His evident reluctance indicates that the man known as the "phantom regent" clung to power until the last minute. China watchers now are trying to figure out what changed his mind and motivated him to pass the torch to his rival, moderate reformist Communist Party chief and state President Hu Jintao.

After months of speculation and reports of a fierce power struggle between Jiang and Hu, the departure of Jiang, 78, and his solid praise of Hu as his successor represented a kind of quiet political earthquake. Analysts speculate about what bargains were struck and what it took to persuade Jiang to go, such as the placement of his colleagues and proteges in positions of power.

Jiang did not tender his resignation to the CCP Central Politburo until September 1, only two weeks before the momentous plenum. By comparison, two months before the fifth plenary session of the CCP National Congress on November 9, 1989, supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had submitted his resignation from the Chinese Military Commission (CMC) chairmanship well in advance in order to demonstrate his sincerity. If Jiang had learned this art of political timing, the rampant rumors that he had locked himself into a power struggle with Hu would have been dispelled, or at least reduced.

In the run-up to the party convention, the official Chinese media, the party mouthpieces, released many stories and reports that seemed designed to wean Jiang from what some observers called his power addiction, and to coax him into renouncing the influential CMC chairmanship at the convention.

For instance, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) used the occasion of Deng Xiaoping's birth centennial to interview his eldest daughter Deng Lin on July 28. She recalled that her father did not intervene but put trust in the succeeding administration of younger leaders after his retirement. For another, a reputed academic at the CCP Central Party School, where party cadres are further educated and groomed, published an article on July 20 saying that the resistance to reform comes from "former reformists" and "only the brave win the infighting" - a reference to Jiang. Again, China Youth Daily, a popular newspaper among young people, disclosed that Song Zuying, a nationally famous singer much praised by Jiang Zemin, reaped an astronomical reward after a show in a poverty-stricken city. All these reports are said to have embarrassed Jiang, the military strongman.

At that time, if Jiang had intended to step down, his close colleagues and confidants would have had some clue. However, after the New York Times reported early this month that "Jiang Zemin, China's military chief and senior leader, has told Communist Party officials that he plans to resign", Jiang's nephew, Tai Zhan, vigorously and publicly denied the report. Besides, some senior Chinese officials had disclosed that Jiang's retirement was not on the agenda for the fourth plenum of CCP National Congress. Up until the plenum convened last Friday, some Hong Kong-based media with close connections with Jiang were saying the same thing - no retirement.

For sure, the sudden step-down of the regent is not a result of perfect secrecy work.

Over the past few months, there was not a single sign that pointed to the departure of the commander-in-chief. On July 26, Jiang met with serviceman representatives and made a talk on "truth" at the seminar on the "Three Represents" theory, attributed to Jiang and now enshrined in China's constitution.

On September 2, Jiang held a high-profile meeting with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Two days later, he presented an inscription in his calligraphy to the military logistics headquarters in Tibet. On September 13, CMC vice chairman Guo Boxiong, on an inspection tour in northwestern China, emphasized that "the troops must take orders from the central party caucus, the CMC and chairman Jiang at any time and any case", the PLA Daily reported. Then, on September 16, Jiang promulgated the revised Ordinance of Environmental Protection of the People's Liberation Army, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Some commentators believe that the chief commander would remain in the line of duty until the last minute, while some skeptics sought hidden signals of possible departure behind these actions.

In August, Oriental Outlook, a journal sponsored by Xinhua News Agency, reported that Deng Xiaoping after retirement helped to establish the prestige and authority of his own successor, Jiang Zemin. "We must rally closely to the central party caucus centering on Jiang Zemin," Deng said in 1994. In contrast, Jiang has not spoken of his successor or political heir ever since Hu Jintao entered the office of the CCP secretary general and the Chinese president. Nor has Jiang urged the PLA troops to obey Hu. When he delivered a congratulatory oration - for the last time as the Chinese president - on New Year's Day in 2003, Jiang only said in a general way that "all Chinese people are closely rallying to the central party caucus centering on CCP secretary general Hu Jintao" - not a powerful endorsement. In the same month, the magazine again published a picture showing late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping shaking hands with Hu, with Jiang being sidelined next to Deng.

Finally, however, as the plenum closed, the general public was pleasantly surprised when Jiang not only recommended Hu as the next CMC chairman, but also extolled Hu's qualifications in his resignation letter. He had long desired to "retire completely" from the party's top hierarchy, Jiang said, and he had proposed to quit the CCP Central Committee even before the 16th CCP National Congress on October 8, 2002. The central caucus, however, decided that he must remain as chairman of the military commission, in view of the volatile international situation and the arduous tasks of national defense and military buildup and modernization, Jiang's letter said.

Nevertheless, analysts say, the global political climate is not any milder, nor is the daunting task of national defense completed, or nearing completion. So it is likely that there may be some as yet unknown reasons behind Jiang's stepping down.

Some overseas media cited Jiang Zemin's family as saying that he retired because of "poor health". But for a long time, Jiang had been seeking acknowledgement of his robust health in a bid to maintain his influence. On July 8, he greeted US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice by saying, "You look younger," Perhaps he was expecting something like "So do you" from Rice, who did not return the compliment. When he met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in July, Jiang said: "They say I'm still young."

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Sep 22, 2004

Start of Hu era as Jiang steps down (Sep 21, '04)

Chinese puzzle: Jiang's retirement (Sep 18, '04)

Hu-Jiang struggle: Not a shooting war
(Sep 16, '04)

Power struggle: Will Jiang step down?
(Sep 11, '04)

China's 'peaceful rise' at stake in power struggle (Sep 8, '04) 


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