THE Year of the Rat - and the years and decades beyond - belongs at least in theory to the fourth and fifth tiers of the Chinese leadership, cadres in their late 30s to early 50s. However, in the pressure-cooker 20 months before the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 15th Congress, the centre stage is still being hogged by the second and third generations. While President Jiang Zemin, 69, is apparently ensconced in his position as the 'core' of the third-generation leadership, a three-way slugfest has broken out between Zhu Rongji, Li Lanqing and Wu Bangguo for the position of Prime Minister. The surprise of the season is that Mr Zhu, 67, has emerged as the front runner. This is despite the fact that he is the same age as the incumbent, Li Peng - and is expected to retire with the unpopular premier in early 1998. Friends of the hard-driving fellow native of Mao Zedong said Mr Zhu had never hidden his ambition to become premier - or his confidence that he will be Communist China's most qualified head of government. The conventional wisdom until mid-1995 was that, apart from the criterion of rejuvenation, Mr Zhu was ruled out because his austerity policy had offended practically all the major power blocs in the polity: the regional 'warlords', the People's Liberation Army, and state as well as private entrepreneurs. However, the star of the economic czar is rising. The tight-money policy has brought down inflation. And his 'macro-level adjustments and controls' have at least superficially reined in the excessive investment and speculation activities of local administrations. More important, however, is the resurgence of hard-line, back-to-basics attitudes in politics. Mr Zhu's views on neo-authoritarianism and recentralisation fit hand in glove with the new requirements of neo-conservatism. In spite of the fact that Mr Zhu and Mr Jiang lead different strains of the Shanghai Faction - the two never saw eye to eye when they served in Shanghai in the mid-1980s - a symbiotic relationship has developed between them. Mr Zhu, whose power base in both the party and the PLA is flimsy, needs the backing of Mr Jiang. And the president, whose grasp of economics and policy issues is considered tenuous, needs somebody to take the blame when the economy goes into a tailspin. By contrast, the tide is turning against Mr Wu and Mr Li Lanqing. A former party boss of Shanghai, Mr Wu, 54, is considered Mr Jiang's favourite fourth-generation politician. His promotion to Beijing as vice-premier last March, however, elicited massive opposition from 'warlords' in such areas as the Beijing municipality and poor regions in central and western China. MATTERS were not helped by the fact that Mr Wu was given what Western diplomats call the 'suicidal portfolio' of reviving industrial enterprises. Since mid-1995, Mr Wu has wisely taken the advice of the aides he brought from the East China metropolis: lie low and stay out of trouble. Until recently, the State Council's peacock throne seemed Mr Li Lanqing's to lose. A member of the Shanghai clique by birth and education, Mr Li, 63, is a honcho of the powerful 'automobile faction' in the party and government. Moreover, Mr Li is as suave as Mr Zhu is abrasive. He is acceptable to Mr Jiang in addition to being a protege of influential party elders including 'immortal' Bo Yibo and Wan Li. Equally significant, the vice-premier had since 1993 been in charge of foreign trade and investment, education and fighting smuggling, usually regarded as easy-to-please portfolios. Last year, Mr Li even won a turf battle when he repelled Mr Zhu's efforts to take over decision-making powers over foreign trade. Since late last year, however, his ride to the top has run into turbulence. While foreign investment in the country and exports are still going up, the margin of increase is thinning. Scores of large foreign trade enterprises, including those along the prosperous southeast coast, are losing money for the first time in living memory. Much more serious for Mr Li's political fortune, however, is that he is seen as too liberal and pro-West even as the political climate is taking a sharp turn towards conservatism and America bashing. The foreign trade establishment led by Mr Li has been ridiculed as having made too many concessions to the Washington-led Western alliance in sectors such as tax concessions and market access. Some vicious critics of Mr Li went so far as to label him a latter-day Li Hongzhang, a reference to the Qing Dynasty minister who 'sold out' to the West. Whether Mr Zhu can really become top dog, however, hinges on factors including the proclivities of the 'second-generation' revolutionaries. Their participation in numerous Lunar New Year festivities has demonstrated that a large number of septuagenarian and octogenarian elders are still out and about. Both the leader of the liberal wing of the CCP and that of the conservatives, respectively Yang Shangkun, 88, and Song Ping, 78, were in Guangdong last week to canvass regional support. The three candidates for the premier's job must contend against a groundswell of anti-establishment sentiments among retired cadres. With their pay cheques eaten up by inflation, many veterans have staged open demonstrations against the leadership. Even elders who are allowed to keep spacious mansions and chauffeured limousines gripe against the loss of ideals, whether they be Chairman Mao's revolutionary rectitude or Mr Deng's reformist adventurism. While the holdovers from the Long March days no longer occupy positions of power, they have moral authority in matters such as adjudicating over party traditions and picking the next helmsman. For example, should Qiao Shi, having reached the age of 74 in early 1998, yield his National People's Congress chairmanship to Premier Li, a position that the latter badly wants? On the score of age, should an exception be made for Mr Zhu when legislators consider him for the premier's position? After all, nobody has forgotten how bitterly the late Li Xiannian complained in 1988, when he was forced to give up the state presidency to Mr Yang, who was one year his senior. Li Xiannian's antagonist was New Helmsman Deng, whose incapacitation could result in a gruelling free-for-all for all four generations of cadres.