China took key steps Saturday toward entrenching a successor generation of leaders in power, with Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin assuming the presidency and longtime security chief Qiao Shi getting the top parliamentary post.
The moves were approved by huge majorities in the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp Parliament. They reflect the wishes of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, 88, who is trying to pass his power on to a small group centered on Jiang.
Jiang, 66, who was elevated to head of the party in 1989 as a compromise figure, now has gathered into his hands a collection of concurrent posts that would make him the undisputed leader in most countries. He is party general secretary and chairman of both the party and state military commissions, technically separate but overlapping bodies. He was reelected Saturday as head of the state Central Military Commission, equivalent to commander in chief.
In a symbol of China's growing commitment to creation of a market economy, a wealthy former capitalist, Rong Yiren, 77, head of China's leading government-owned trade and investment firm, was elected Saturday as China's vice president.
There is more than titles, however, to real power in China. Authority flows from seniority, prestige and personal connections as much as it does from formal posts. This is how Deng continues to reign as paramount leader.
Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor who was brought to Beijing only after the 1989 crackdown on China's pro-democracy movement, lacks any deep-rooted power base in the military, security forces or central government structure.
Many Chinese and foreign observers thus view Jiang as a weak leader likely to be a transitional figure. He has achieved much of his success by bending to the prevailing political winds, and few Chinese feel they have any clear idea of what his real beliefs may be. He voices support for Deng's twin policies of economic reform and political dictatorship. But beyond that he is often seen as rather huatou-- slippery, shifty or slick.
The presidency, although traditionally filled by a prestigious and influential leader, is usually considered an institutionally weak position, with much greater power residing in the joint party-state Central Military Commission and in the post of Communist Party chief. By this common view, Jiang gains little from his new title other than status as head of state, which boosts his protocol rank for meetings with foreign leaders.
But a Saturday dispatch by the official New China News Agency noted that China's 1982 constitution grants considerable formal powers to the president. "The president, in pursuance of decisions of the National People's Congress and its Standing Committee, promulgates statutes, appoints the premier, vice premiers, state councilors, ministers in charge of ministries or commissions . . . proclaims martial law, proclaims a state of war and issues mobilization orders," the agency said.
Ever since the 1949 revolution, power in China has rested with whoever controls the Communist Party. For most of this period, authority lay in the party's policy-setting Politburo, and especially the small Politburo Standing Committee. But in the 1980s, as aging revolutionaries around Deng retired from the Politburo, they took real power with them. It was this clique of octogenarians, most of them officially retired, that ordered the army crackdown on the 1989 Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests.
Since last October, however, when the party approved a new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, real power has been flowing back to this body.