Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan has emerged as a dark-horse candidate to succeed Li Peng as premier when the latter retires in early 1998. While personnel matters are not on the agenda of the conference of state policy in the northern China resort of Beidaihe, important changes to the leadership line-up are being discussed informally. After more than three years as Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Mr Li Ruihuan has expressed a desire to get back to the front line of politics. Chinese sources said in a recent meeting with President Jiang Zemin , Mr Li Ruihuan, 62, said he was a suitable candidate in terms of age and experience. 'I am willing to take up more responsibility,' he reportedly said. The sources said Mr Li Ruihuan's stock had risen given widespread reports in Beijing that the frontrunner for the premiership, Executive Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji had suddenly displayed a lack of enthusiasm. They said Mr Zhu's aides and supporters were trying to persuade the economic tsar to stay in the running for the top position. They said if Mr Zhu, 68, took himself out of the race, it would be Mr Li Ruihuan against another Vice-Premier, Li Lanqing . However, given Mr Li Ruihuan's seniority, Mr Li Lanqing, 64, an ordinary Politburo member who is in charge of foreign trade and education, would be hard put to mount a challenge. A former Tianjin mayor, Mr Li Ruihuan is a leader of the party's moderate faction. The former carpenter and 'paragon proletarian' has a large following among workers and intellectuals. But political foes of Mr Li Ruihuan have recently reportedly circulated innuendoes in an apparent bid to discredit him. One story making the rounds of the capital said a powerful party elder had disapproved of Mr Li Ruihuan's candidacy. The elder reportedly compared Mr Li Ruihuan to the disgraced Xiang Zhongfa , a former model proletarian who had challenged Mao Zedong for the party leadership in pre-Liberation days. A source said Mr Jiang had taken advantage of the Beidaihe conference to lobby support from party elders and regional cadres. The source said Mr Jiang had recently had another run-in with the two senior vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, generals Liu Huaqing and Zhang Zhen, over Taiwan policy. The two generals have repeatedly criticised Mr Jiang for being too soft on Taiwan.