Tian Jiyun , a low-profile and unimpressive-looking cadre, has become the protagonist in the latest twist of Beijing's Byzantine politics. Part of the power struggle in the run-up to the 15th Congress of the Communist Party next year centres on the probable retirement of National People's Congress (NPC) Chairman Qiao Shi , 72, and Premier Li Peng , 68, and the quest for successors. Because he will have served two terms by early 1998, Mr Li has agreed to call it quits then, provided he be allowed to keep his membership of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). This is despite proposals by some Li loyalists that the Chinese Constitution be changed to allow him to seek a third term. Mr Qiao, deemed the only politician with enough stature to challenge President Jiang Zemin as China's 'next Deng Xiaoping' , has also agreed to retire under certain conditions. Apart from retaining his PSC position, Mr Qiao is adamant that the First Vice-Chairman of the NPC and Politburo member, Mr Tian, succeed him as head of China's parliament in the spring of 1998. A former vice-premier in charge of agriculture, Mr Tian was the right-hand man of ousted party general secretary Zhao Ziyang . A fervent believer in market economics, Mr Tian was obliged to leave mainstream party politics when he was given the No 2 slot in the NPC at the 14th Party Congress of late 1992. However, he has since played a key role in promoting the rule of law as well as the NPC's status as the 'supervisor of the party and government'. Mr Tian is particularly popular in the provinces thanks to his effort in boosting the law-making powers of regional-level people's congresses. Given this background, it is not surprising the so-called neo-conservative leadership of Mr Jiang and Mr Li has expressed intense opposition to Mr Tian becoming parliamentary chief. Mr Jiang, who is also party General Secretary, has reportedly said the elevation of Mr Tian could give cadres and party members the wrong impression that the 'Zhao Ziyang cabal' was making a comeback. Mr Jiang's propagandists have gone so far as to call followers of Mr Zhao 'capitulationists', in the sense that the liberals had 'succumbed to the sugar-coated bullets of capitalism'. Mr Tian's supporters claimed Mr Jiang used quasi-Maoist tactics to blacken the reformer's name. For example, the parliamentary leader recently wrote the following inscription for the managers of some collective enterprises: 'Village and township enterprises are the hope for the revival of China's industry.' In an internal meeting, Mr Jiang lambasted Mr Tian for belittling the role of government-owned enterprises, which, the president maintained, should always be given top billing. Mr Tian has also crossed swords with the neo-conservative party chief on other matters. For instance, the former expressed reservations about the on-going 'Strike Hard' campaign against hard-core criminals. Mr Tian pointed out Beijing's instructions to police and court authorities to 'speed up' arrests as well as prosecution and incrimination procedures went against the principle of the rule of law. 'This is the 1990s and the country must be run according to the law,' he reportedly said last month. The rivalry between Mr Tian and Mr Li [Peng] went back to the mid-1980s, when both were seeking to become head of government. Moreover, it is understood that the premier desperately wants the position of NPC chief, whose importance is expected to grow in the next decade. Mr Tian has also faced flak from the party's leftist, or Maoist wing. Political analysts in Beijing said the ideologues would never forgive the rabid anti-leftist speech Mr Tian gave at the Central Party School in mid-1992. On that memorable occasion, Mr Tian urged the Maoists be banished to 'leftist special zones' where food would be rationed according to central planning and where no officials would be allowed to send their children abroad. In spite of his unreserved support of the instructions given by patriarch Deng Xiaoping during his nanxun or 'imperial tour of southern China' earlier that year, the leftists were successful in preventing Mr Tian from being inducted into the PSC at the 14th Congress. The analysts said while Mr Qiao had offered unqualified backing to his deputy, the chances for Mr Tian getting the top legislative post were not high. But the free-marketeer is left unfazed by conservative pressure. While inspecting backwards Guizhou province last week, Mr Tian continued to preach the gospel of Mr Deng's market initiatives. 'We must tightly seize the opportunity and liberate our thoughts even further,' he told Guizhou officials. Mr Tian had particularly bold things to say about the ongoing debate on the reform of state-owned enterprises. Superficially, he toed the neo-conservative line about 'maintaining tight control over the large state enterprises and letting the small ones go [to the marketplace]'. The NPC leader pointed out that regional cadres must follow central edicts in handling large business units. On the ways and means to 'liberalise' small-scale state concerns, however, Mr Tian encouraged the localities to fully develop their autonomy and creativity. 'Our ideas must be even more liberated,' he said. 'Taking our departure from practical realities, we should let the enterprises go as far as they can [in reform]. There should not be too many restrictions.' There seems no doubt that the standard-bearer of Deng-style reform was targeting the denigrators of experiments in avant-garde cities such as Shunde of Guangdong and Zhucheng of Shandong, where state enterprises are being sold to foreigners or converted into 'share-holding co-operatives'. The momentum, however, seems to be going the way of the conservatives. Critics of Mr Jiang said even though he had been in power for seven years, the party chief was nervous about being upstaged by his illustrious predecessor. In spite of signs that he wants to sever his links with the Maoists, the president has given instructions to aides such as propaganda chief Ding Guangen to lay the groundwork for another offensive against 'bourgeois liberalisation'. The new campaign against 'all-out Westernisation' will likely be linked to recent assertions of nationalist sentiments and attempts to combat efforts by so-called hostile foreign forces to export 'spiritual garbage' to China.