The New Guard

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It takes a certain amount of hubris to rule 1.3 billion people. Mao Zedong ran China with awe-inspiring ruthlessness, while Deng Xiaoping was obsessed with shaking things up. Jiang Zemin presides with a grandfatherly smile that sets him above the bickering of his conservative and reformist underlings. Who dares to follow?
With China's 50th anniversary now safely in the bag (having raised Jiang's image to the pantheon of communist all-stars on the shoulders of hand-picked celebrants), the Communist Party is looking ahead to the accession of a fourth generation of leaders, expected to take place in 2002 during the 16th Party Congress. By then, President Jiang will be 76 and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji 73; succession scenarios are already being floated. But unlike the saturation coverage given to, say, a U.S. presidential contest, the race to rule China is bafflingly opaque, resting in the hands of a few party insiders unaccountable to the public. The leadership compound inside Zhongnanhai is a world of factions--conservatives, reformers, princelings with long pedigrees, the Shanghai clique--and of personal feuds, old debts and older memories. Seasoned Chinese politicians know better than to go on the equivalent of Larry King Live to announce their ambitions for all to see.The era of the strongman is over in China, says Wang Shaoguang, professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The turn of the century will bring collective leadership to the fore. The current leaders-in-waiting are technocrats, not revolutionaries, and their instincts are to manage the status quo rather than destroy and build something new. They were in their mid-20s during the Cultural Revolution, says David Zweig, associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who argues that the next generation's primary concern is to avoid a return to chaos. I don't expect any of them to push for rapid political reform.

For now, the frontrunner to succeed Jiang is Hu Jintao, the 56-year-old Vice President who has risen to his current position more by avoiding mistakes than through any notable accomplishments. His chances have been further boosted by his appointment last month as vice chairman of the influential Central Military Commission.

The other top contenders for power are thought to be Wen Jiabao, a Vice-Premier who is viewed as a committed reformer, and Zeng Qinghong, who as head of the party's Organization Department controls promotions and personnel decisions across the country. Zeng is immensely influential but tends to operate in the background. In one scenario bandied about in the capital, Hu would become President, Wen the Prime Minister and Zeng the Communist Party chief. Jiang might remain chairman of the military commission and adopt a role similar to Deng's in his later years, directing from behind the scenes and playing his protégés off against one another.

Much can change over three years, of course, and double-guessing the party's inner workings is like estimating China's real GDP figures. William Overholt, executive director of Nomura International in Hong Kong, expects the pendulum to swing back toward the reformers, as the necessity for economic restructuring increases. That could change succession plans. Five years before Deng Xiaoping died, says Overholt, who would have thought that Jiang Zemin would become his successor--and a reformist one at that?

Here's a look at the next generation of men who would rule China:
Hu Jintao
The Anhui native is the current heir apparent. Hu holds top posts in the government (Vice President), party (No. 5 in its hierarchy) and army (vice chairman of the Central Military Commission). Hu was plucked from obscurity as a construction official in relatively impoverished Gansu province by party elder Song Ping in the mid-1970s and moved up through the party's Youth League. As party secretary of Tibet, Hu presided over a violent crackdown on independence demonstrators in 1989. Earlier this year, after the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, it fell to Hu to go on TV to finesse the leadership's strategy of encouraging student protests against the U.S. while ensuring they did not spin out of control. Hu is known for a photographic memory and for pleasing visitors by remembering details of past conversations he's had with them. But he has no real economic experience and is regarded as Jiang's choice partly because he poses no threat to the elder leader's power.

Wen Jiabao
If Hu specializes in crises, Wen the geologist manages longer-term efforts. The Vice-Premier from Tianjin is in charge of agriculture (in a country with 800 million farmers), flood alleviation (the old imperial prerogative) and the tricky business of recapitalizing China's banks and stabilizing the stock markets. Wen has managed to walk a treacherous reformist tightrope. When he came to Zhongnanhai in 1985, he was close to then party chief Hu Yaobang and survived Hu's subsequent purging. He then worked for Zhao Ziyang, accompanying him on his fateful 1989 visit to students in Tiananmen Square--and again avoided being dragged down when Zhao lost his post as party general secretary. The genial, low-profile Wen got a lot of TV air time last year coordinating relief efforts during the Yangtze's disastrous flooding. His reformist instincts could make him a counterbalance to the more cautious Hu.

Zeng Qinghong
A trained engineer, Zeng heads both the party's Organization Department and Jiang's private office. With his hands on the party's personnel dossiers, he is effectively the President's hatchet man. Zeng's star is closely tied to Jiang--he became deputy party secretary in Shanghai when Jiang was mayor and followed his patron to Beijing in 1989. He has since reportedly helped sideline several of Jiang's enemies, including Beijing party chief Chen Xitong, who was prosecuted for corruption. In private, some refer to Zeng as Keeper of the Imperial Palace--a Qing dynasty term for the head eunuch. He wields considerable power, but appears happier flitting through the shadows of Zhongnanhai than exposing himself as a political leader.

Wu Bangguo
A graduate in radio electronics from Beijing's Qinghua University, Wu served as chief aide in Shanghai to both Jiang Zemin and later Zhu Rongji before becoming party chief of the city himself. His current job, Vice-Premier in charge of state-owned enterprises, is a poisoned chalice. Cutting jobs in the name of reform is politically dicey, while preserving employment in loss-making firms is economically disastrous. For a time, Zhu kept the cautious Wu sidelined. But since this summer, when the Premier lost power over state enterprises, Wu has conspicuously accompanied Jiang on economic trips to the provinces. Some believe Jiang is lining Wu up to eventually succeed Zhu.

Li Changchun
As governor of the northeastern industrial province of Liaoning, Li built China's first expressway, linking Shenyang with Dalian in 1990. This spurred business growth and won kudos for Li. After a spell as party chief of the agricultural province of Henan, Li in 1998 was made party chief of Guangdong. He is unpopular in that province, however, for campaigning against corruption--though that might boost his standing in Beijing. Li apparently faces a rival in Hu Jintao, who some say views Li as a potential political rival.

Wang Zhongyu
Wang is one of Zhu Rongji's closest colleagues--a reputation that is perhaps becoming a liability in China's increasingly troubled economic climate. As governor of Jilin, Wang impressed the Premier in 1991 with his reformist views and found himself summoned to Beijing a year later. He rose to his current status as secretary general of the State Council (Zhu's cabinet), with responsibility for structural-reform initiatives. He is effectively Zhu's troubleshooter, which involves a lot of shooting these days.
Lou Jiwei
Like Wang, Lou may have the right ideas at the wrong time. With degrees in computer science and economics, Lou was one of the élite young economists who promoted Zhao Ziyang's reforms in the 1980s and then transferred their loyalties to Zhu. In 1992 Lou helped overhaul China's taxation system to increase revenues; he has also worked on reforming state enterprises. After two years as vice-governor of Guizhou province, where he hustled to attract foreign investment, Lou returned to Beijing last year when Zhu appointed him vice minister for finance--just as China was applying economic chokeholds. Lou is likely to flourish when reform comes back into favor.

Xu Kuangdi
As mayor of Shanghai, Xu occupies a charmed seat--several predecessors went on to greater things in the capital. Xu, who studied in Britain and worked as a technician in Sweden, was teaching technology in Shanghai when Zhu tapped him to head the city's planning commission--because Xu had said he hated central planning, a sentiment right up Zhu's street. Since becoming mayor in 1994, Xu has tirelessly promoted Shanghai as a world financial and industrial center, while making the city a relatively clean and efficient place to live. At 61, Xu has plenty of time to climb the ladder in Beijing.

Wu Jichuan
Known among foreign businessmen as Mr. No, the minister for Information Industries has positioned himself as standard-bearer for conservative bureaucrats opposed to a rapid opening of the country's economy. He comes from Hunan, a province famed for producing headstrong leaders like Mao and Zhu Rongji. Wu has spent his entire career in telecommunications, graduating from the Beijing Institute of Post and Telecommunications and working his way up to become minister of what was then Posts and Telecommunications in 1993. There he oversaw an unprecedented expansion of phone lines and mobile-phone usage--by 1997 China had 80 million lines, second only to the U.S.--while delivering huge revenues to government coffers. This has armor-plated his position as telecoms czar, so when he announced last month that China would not allow foreign investment in its Internet companies, the entire world took notice. The move was likely an opening gambit in the longer struggle for control of China's Internet market--and a lesson in how power politics works in Beijing.

With reporting by Hannah Beech/Hong Kong and Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing