The arrival of the Year of the Tiger means President Hu Jintao has only about 21/2 years left to serve as general secretary of the Communist Party. And while that does not make him a lame duck - at least not yet - it probably does heighten his sense of urgency to do something that will ensure his enduring position in Chinese history.
A sense of continuity in Chinese communist history was demonstrated in October during celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Four gigantic portraits were on display, showing Mao Zedong , Deng Xiaoping , Jiang Zemin and Hu. The luckless Hua Guofeng, who had been anointed by Mao as his successor but who was outmanoeuvred by Deng, did not feature in this version of history.
The position of Mao in Chinese history is secure despite the chaos he caused by starting one political campaign after another, culminating in the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Mao will go down in history as the man who defeated the Kuomintang in the civil war of 1946-1949 and founded New China.
While Deng's period of leadership was marred by the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, his position in Chinese history is also secure. He is honoured as the chief architect of reform and will be remembered as the man who put the country on the road to economic development.
As for Jiang, he will be remembered as the man who presided over the return to Chinese sovereignty of Hong Kong and Macau, ending colonialism in China. True, the policy of 'one country, two systems' was Deng's, but Jiang successfully oversaw its implementation, ending the shame of foreign rule of Chinese territory.
Of course, China is not completely unified yet. There is still the outstanding issue of Taiwan. And here is Hu's opportunity to leave his mark on history.
So far Hu has been credited with the nebulous achievement of having created a 'scientific theory of development', but if he succeeds in bringing the island significantly closer to political union with the mainland, that will be hailed as a major accomplishment. It could even overshadow Hong Kong's handover. Hu, therefore, is angling for a peace agreement with Taiwan to be signed with president Ma Ying-jeou. But Hu must first see to it that Ma remains in power. The Taiwanese leader will run for re-election in early 2012, and if he loses the presidency to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, any hope of a peace agreement will disappear.
That may explain why Beijing, while vociferously criticising Washington's decision to sell US$6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, has said nary a word about Taiwan's request for such arms in the first place. While the mainland is willing to flex its newly acquired muscles in its dealings with the US, Taiwan is a different kettle of fish entirely. Ma's increasingly wobbly position was reflected in the legislative by-elections at the weekend, when his ruling Kuomintang lost three of the four races to the DPP.
Beijing wants to bolster Ma's faltering position in Taiwan but realises that any public rebuke will undermine electoral support for him and hurt his chances of a second term. Moreover, while Beijing can denounce the US for 'interference' in Chinese internal affairs, it cannot very well level the same charge at Taiwan since the island is, by definition, Chinese. What it does cannot constitute interference.
Hu clearly is not interested in making things difficult for the Taiwanese president. Ma has said he would not undertake political negotiations with the mainland during his first term. So if there is a window of opportunity for a peace agreement it is likely to be in 2012, while Hu is still in power and after Ma wins re-election. Such a historic agreement, if realised, would certainly ensure Hu's position in Chinese history. It might even win him and Ma a Nobel Peace Prize.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator