Jiang Zemin, China’s military chief and longtime senior leader, may formally step down on Sunday, putting President Hu Jintao in full command of the Chinese Army, state and governing party, according to people informed of the proceedings of a secretive Communist Party meeting.
Mr. Jiang’s retirement, which has not been confirmed by official sources, would come as a surprise to many political experts, who expected him to remain chairman of the Central Military Commission and the de facto senior leader until 2007.
It remains possible that his resignation, submitted earlier this month and now said to be under consideration by a top decision-making body, may be rejected. But Mr. Jiang, 78, who became China’s top political and military leader after the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, has come under heavy pressure to allow a new generation of leaders to grapple with China’s mounting political and economic challenges.
People who have seen Mr. Jiang or spoken to his relatives in recent weeks say he has serious health problems. One person said he had throat cancer; another said he had persistent heart troubles. It was unclear whether these health issues might have forced Mr. Jiang to retire before he was ready, or, whether they might provide a cover story for a decision that has more to do with internal politicking.
Mr. Hu, 61, who took Mr. Jiang’s titles of Communist Party chief in 2002 and president in 2003, has put forward plans to inject more transparency and discipline into the one-party political system and to raise incomes of blue-collar workers and peasants. But Mr. Hu has also imposed stricter controls on the media than those that existed when Mr. Jiang held China’s top titles, and he has ruled out experimenting with Western-style democracy. He remains an enigma, a carefully crafted product of the Communist Party system, whose innate reserve appears to have been magnified by behind-the-scenes tussles for influence with Mr. Jiang.
Though Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang have not openly clashed over policy matters, several party officials have argued that they had become the effective standard-bearers for rival schools of thought on many domestic and foreign policy issues. The notion that there are two camps at the top may have made lower-level officials less inclined to carry out policies they oppose, including the continuing campaign to slow China’s overheated economy and curtail wasteful state spending.
Numerous questions remain about Mr. Jiang’s actions. Among them is why he submitted his resignation a short time after party officials said he appeared to be trying to enhance his authority.
In recent months, he has promoted numerous military officials to higher posts. Experts took that as a sign that he was solidifying his control of the military rather than preparing to hand his responsibilities to Mr. Hu, as had been agreed before the leadership transition in 2002. State media also increased its coverage of Mr. Jiang in recent months.
Party officials say that in recent private meetings with leading scholars, Mr. Jiang challenged the economic program pursued by Mr. Hu and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister.
Earlier this year, Mr. Jiang opposed and effectively sidelined a new framework for China’s foreign policy Mr. Hu had developed. Mr. Jiang argued that a slogan Mr. Hu had begun using to describe China’s ambitions as a great power, “peaceful rise,” sent the wrong signal at a time when Beijing was warning Taiwan that moves toward independence would provoke military retaliation.
Mr. Jiang was active enough in recent weeks that several well-informed political analysts in Beijing said they suspected that his proffered resignation, which The New York Times first reported earlier this month, might be a trick to mobilize his core constituency, or to fend off the attacks from party elders anxious for him to retire. Those people speculated that Mr. Jiang might have intended to have his resignation rejected, perhaps on the ground that sensitive foreign policy problems, including those involving Taiwan and North Korea, required his continued attention.
That remains possible. But two people informed about the leadership’s decision-making process said they expected the full 198-member Central Committee to vote on Mr. Jiang’s resignation and a new slate of candidates to fill slots on the Central Military Commission before its annual four-day session ends Sunday.
These people said it was unlikely that Mr. Jiang’s resignation would be under consideration by the Central Committee if it were merely a gambit, as matters that go before that body tend to be pre-approved by the governing Politburo.
Moreover, Mr. Jiang told domestic and foreign visitors in recent weeks that he was wary of the appearance that he is clinging to power and has every intention of handing over authority to Mr. Hu, as has been the formal plan of the Communist Party since at least the late 1990’s.
Mainland media have not carried any news about Mr. Jiang’s resignation. But Reuters, Agence France-Presse and The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English-language daily, all carried reports Saturday quoting party and diplomatic sources as saying Mr. Jiang’s retirement would be announced on Sunday.
It is not clear how the Central Military Commission, which controls all of China’s armed forces, would be restructured under a new chairman.
Mr. Hu is currently a vice chairman of the eight-member commission, along with two generals, Guo Boxiong and Cao Gangchuan. Mr. Jiang has been thought to favor promoting his longtime protÃ©gÃ© and ally, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, to serve as a vice chairman. Two people informed about a recent debate inside the military commission said Mr. Jiang made Mr. Zeng’s promotion a condition of his retirement. They also said Mr. Hu opposed this move, possibly because it would leave his control of the military incomplete.