| Jiang Zemin (left) sings with a Chinese soprano in Beijing on Thursday. (Reuters)
Beijing, Nov. 7 (Reuters): Rumour-mongering is a crime in China, but you wouldn’t know it from the cacophony of predictions surrounding a key Communist Party congress starting tomorrow.
Analysts, China hands, diplomats and most average Chinese have expected for years that the 16th Party Congress would ring in a new set of leaders and see older cadres, led by President and party boss Jiang Zemin, step off the political stage.
But as the house lights dim and the key actors take their final calls, the political drama is still shrouded behind a raven-black curtain of secrecy and pundits are left to compare frustratingly different notes on how it will all play out.
“You heard the same names two years ago and you’re hearing the same names again — and with the same level of uncertainty,” said an Asian diplomat who eats, sleeps and breathes Chinese politics.
The Holy Grail for China watchers is the definitive list of who will make it into the elite Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top policy and decision-making body now comprising the country’s seven most powerful men. “I wish I had a list like that,” the diplomat said. “But the more I make one, the more I feel that it’s so uncertain.”
Even US President George W. Bush couldn’t make headway when he asked Jiang about the pending succession in Texas last month. “Well, you know, a lot of people are talking about that, there’s a lot of rumours going around,” a US official quoted the crafty Jiang as saying.
Rumours that Jiang hoped to stay on appear to have subsided, although some sources will still tell you he’s not ready to retire.
The consensus seems to be that Jiang, parliament head Li Peng and Premier Zhu Rongji will step down from their party posts to make way for a new crop of rulers. But the majority view is also that Jiang will continue to wield power in one way or another from offstage. One widely held view is that he will stay on as head of the Central Military Commission, which commands the 2.5 million-strong armed forces.
There has also been talk of Jiang and other retiring leaders forming some kind of advisory body, possibly called the National Security Council or the Development Commission, to steer policy without holding formal party or government posts.
Many in Beijing political circles are also convinced Jiang has packed the new Standing Committee with loyal followers.
Reporters trying to make sense of often contradictory signals scurry to tweak their forecasts. One Hong Kong newspaper said the Standing Committee was sure to be seven people.
The next day it revised it to nine.