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CHINA After Deng, What?


Beijing.-- The Chinese Communist Party's national congress ended last week as a clear victory for China's 88-year-old patriarch, Deng Xiaoping. But his triumph did not solve his biggest problem: his long-standing failure to insure the orderly ascent of his successor.

The party congress enshrined Mr. Deng's dramatic campaign to free up China's economy while maintaining the party's tight political control. Sweeping leadership changes put economic reformers, moderate technocrats, progressive military leaders and internal security specialists in top posts to carry out Mr. Deng's ideas.

The party's constitution even was amended to reflect Mr. Deng's reform line as well as his warning about the dangers of "leftism," a code phrase here for the hard-line ideologues who have opposed him.

But no clear successor to Mr. Deng emerged from the leadership reshuffle, and power at the party's pinnacle now appears more thinly spread than concentrated in the hands of any one leader.

It may well be that Mr. Deng's final aim is to set in place a collective leadership. But power-sharing has never characterized the party's upper reaches for long. Upon the death of the increasingly feeble Mr. Deng, this bodes a highly uncertain, potentially chaotic power struggle -- a prospect feared by many Chinese.

Like Mao Tse-tung, China's founding father and Mr. Deng's predecessor as the final arbiter of power in the world's largest nation, Mr. Deng only has himself to blame for this situation.

In the last decades of his life, Mr. Mao ditched two personally anointed successors, former national leader Liu Shaoqi and former Defense Minister Lin Biao. On his death bed in 1976, Mao named Hua Guofeng to carry on his legacy. But within two years, Mr. Hua essentially was displaced by Mr. Deng.

Similarly in the 1980s, Mr. Deng sacrificed two would-be successors, former party bosses Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both of whom lost power after being blamed for student protests spawned by the by-products of Mr. Deng's historic economic reforms.

Three years after Mr. Zhao was sacked in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, a third strong, potential successor to Mr. Deng has yet to arise. Put broadly, should Mr. Deng die soon, at least three distinct types of party leaders are apt to be players in the complex power struggle that might ensue:

* Reluctant reformers: Chinese Premier Li Peng and current party chief Jiang Zemin, the former Shanghai mayor tabbed by Mr. Deng after Mr. Zhao's fall as the "core" of China's next generation of leaders.

While they have their differences, both Mr. Jiang and Mr. Li are more traditional socialists than Mr. Deng. Both are believed to have only reluctantly gone along with his reforms. And both have retained their seats on China's most powerful body, the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo.

But neither man is foreseen here as capable of filling Mr. Deng's shoes.

Along with serving as party chief, Mr. Jiang, 66, holds another key post, head of China's military commission. But he lacks Mr. Deng's military credentials, and he does not even have a deep base of support within the party. He easily could end up as a mere transitional figure like Mr. Mao's third appointed successor, Mr. Hua.

Premier Li, 64, suffers irreparably both within China and abroad from his close association with the massacre of the Tiananmen protesters. He is widely reviled here, and his rise to the top spot would stretch too far the party's already thin legitimacy. He could be forced to give up the premiership by next spring.

* The Yang family: Chinese President Yang Shangkun and his younger brother, General Yang Baibing, who has been in charge of military ideology.

President Yang is the only Chinese leader who comes close to Mr. Deng's national stature and who might be able to assume his role right now. Like Mr. Deng, he has strong connections with China's military, which often has played the kingmaker role in Chinese politics.

But President Yang is 85 years old. And in the broad leadership shift that just took place, he and his brother suffered big losses.

President Yang was dropped from the Politburo and from a leading position within China's military commission -- moves perhaps signaling his retirement from the presidency by next year. General Yang, 72, grabbed a Politburo seat for the first time, but he too was axed from the military commission.

The Yang family's fall may only be temporary -- as President Yang's political fortunes, like Mr. Deng's, may not rest on holding formal titles. But for moment, their recent setbacks are being interpreted here as an effort by Mr. Deng to limit their influence after his death.

* The enigmas: Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, an aggressive economic reformer, and Qiao Shi, long in charge of party security and discipline. Both men were elected last week to the Politburo's seven-member Standing Committee.

The rise of Mr. Zhu, 64, has been meteoric. He was not even a full member of the previous party Central Committee elected in 1987, a policy-making body from which all top party posts are filled.

A former Shanghai mayor, Mr. Zhu only joined the top levels of the central government after the 1989 Tiananmen protests. His ease with Westerners and his full-speed- approach to economic restructuring have earned him the label "China's Gorbachev," an inaccurate title when it comes to political reform and one surely hurting him within the party.

Mr. Zhu is said to have been hand-picked by Mr. Deng to manage the restructuring of China's economy to allow market forces to hold sway. But he has not had time to build a power base within the party and he lacks military credentials. His further rise might be opposed by hard-liners, who retained sizable representation on the party's Central Committee despite the reformist thrust of the party congress.

Mr. Qiao, 68, has been a national party leader much longer than Mr. Zhu, but even less is firmly known about him.

Dating back to the mid-1980s, he has been rumored as a successor to both of Mr. Deng's sacked party chiefs. Over time, he has been labeled both a reformer and a hard-liner -- a confusion that might recommend him for China's top spot in the event of a stand-off between party factions.

While he remains an enigma, Mr. Qiao's portfolio clearly has embraced the second key pillar of Mr. Deng's approach to ruling China: iron-fisted internal security. He has overseen the party's central training school, its discipline commission and China's internal security apparatus.

But as with other top party leaders -- except for elderly President Yang -- Mr. Qiao's persona still pales in comparison to Mr. Deng. At the moment, it is hard to foresee any of them becoming China's next patriarch.

That was evident Monday in the newly elected Politburo Standing Committee's first act: a nationally-televised appearance with Mr. Deng.

The aged leader's shaky, but smiling demeanor was meant to bestow upon them his still needed personal imprimatur. But it also deeply underscored their individual and collective weakness -- as well as the huge uncertainties they will face with Mr. Deng's death.

Robert Benjamin is The Baltimore Sun's Beijing correspondent.

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