- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

BEIJING — China’s communists wrap up a key leadership meeting today amid speculation over whether former President Jiang Zemin is giving up his last major post, accelerating a handover of power to his successor, Hu Jintao.

The four-day meeting of the ruling party’s 198-member Central Committee is taking place behind closed doors, with no disclosures to China’s public about the proceedings outside a vague statement at its start about improving the party’s internal workings.

The South China Morning Post and other media said yesterday that Mr. Jiang, 78, had submitted his resignation as head of the influential party commission that runs China’s military. His term was to have run until 2007.

Such a decision would come as a surprise to diplomats and political analysts, who didn’t expect any major announcements from the meeting.

Mr. Jiang held onto his military post when he stepped down in 2002 after 13 years as party leader. That helped him retain influence even as the 62-year-old Mr. Hu took over as party leader and, in early 2003, as president in a long-planned handover of power to younger leaders.

Mr. Jiang’s retirement from the military commission would complete China’s first peaceful leadership transition since its 1949 revolution — a goal that party leaders are eager to see to the end as they wrestle with economic and social problems.

Taking over the military post would ensure Mr. Hu’s status as China’s paramount leader, though he is surrounded by Jiang allies on the party’s ruling nine-member Standing Committee. Mr. Hu is deputy chairman of the commission and has long been expected to become chairman.

Mr. Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, was plucked from obscurity by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to lead the party in 1989 after pro-democracy protests and an internal power struggle threatened to tear it apart.

Mr. Deng nominated Mr. Hu as Mr. Jiang’s successor in the early 1990s, setting in motion a succession that is still under way.

The New York Times, citing unidentified sources, reported on its Web site yesterday that Mr. Jiang might cite ill health — possibly heart trouble or cancer — as a reason to resign early.

Mr. Jiang has given no public hint of illness, looking vigorous and animated in meetings with foreign visitors.

Talk of a possible resignation might also simply be a deliberate political tactic by Mr. Jiang. Officials in the past have floated plans to quit in order to shore up their positions by mobilizing public declarations of support.

Mr. Jiang’s enduring tenure as head of China’s military has been awkward for Mr. Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

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