09/18/2004, 00.00

Is Jiang Zemin stepping down?

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Sources in the Chinese capital revealed to AsiaNews that Jiang Zemin is going to step down tomorrow as chairman of the Central Military Commission, making way for President Hu Jintao to become the mainland's undisputed leader. The switch would complete the mainland's first peaceful transfer of power since 1949.

Today the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post said Mr Jiang, 78, handed in his resignation at the plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee which began on Thursday. Quoting party sources, the paper said Committee members are expected to approve his resignation and elect Mr Hu as chairman tomorrow - the last day of the meeting - after which a formal announcement will be made. However,

Mr Jiang's resignation and Mr Hu's elevation would bring to a successful conclusion a transfer of power that began in November 2002 when Mr Jiang stood down as the party's secretary-general in favour of Mr Hu, who then took over the presidency from Mr Jiang in March last year.

Mr Hu, 61, will now have command over the party, the state and the armed forces.

Mr Jiang's resignation, was the subject of intense speculation in recent days.

But despite his retirement, Mr Jiang would probably continue to wield considerable influence behind the scenes. During his leadership, which started after the Tiananmen massacre,  he built up strong links with the entrepreneurs community and political personalities revolving around the so called "Shanghai clique". In the last few years he has appointed dozens of new army generals, leaving a heavy legacy  of faithful military personnel in the army.

At least five of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee - the mainland's highest decision-making body - are considered close allies of Mr Jiang. They include the vice-president, vice-premier Huang Ju and the party's propaganda chief.

If Jiang steps down, it is very possible that  Vice-President Zeng Qinghong – a friend of Jiang - will be made a deputy chairman of the military commission at the plenum.

Mr Jiang's retirement is unlikely to produce any major changes in domestic or foreign policies. But as Mr Hu continues to consolidate his power and make his mark, subtle changes can be expected.

Jiang has always stressed an image of China as an international superpower, full of modernity and patriotism; Hu has proposed a Chinese leadership near to the poor and the farmers, with more flexibility towards Taiwan and cooperation in the international arena.

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