Gang of three provides challenge to conservative axis

A RIVAL power centre to the so-called Jiang-Li axis is being licked into shape days after party chief Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng consolidated their grip at the National People's Congress.

Three leaders of the moderate wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who have been side-lined have laid the groundwork for a challenge to the mainstream faction.

Late last month, Qiao Shi, Tian Ziyun, and Li Ruihuan - all members of the politburo - were given the peripheral slots of respectively Chairman and First Vice-Chairman of the NPC, and the Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference(CPPCC).

Almost immediately after taking office, the trio sought to transform the NPC and the CPPCC - usually regarded as decorative, ''flower vase'' organs - into heavyweights capable of ''supervising'' party and Government.

If they can make good their pledges, checks and balances with Chinese characteristics will have been put into place. This is despite patriarch Deng Xiaoping's oft-repeated caveat that Beijing would never choose the ''Western-style tripartite division of power''.

Since the three NPC and CPPCC supremos represent the party's liberal wing, their power bid could also present party members and ordinary citizens with an alternative to the conservative Jiang-Li axis.

In a major speech on March 31, Qiao deftly played the public opinion card when he insinuated that the NPC embodied the power of the people.

''Supervision by the NPC is an important part of the entire country's supervisory system,'' he said. ''As a representative of the state and the people, the NPC is pursuing a kind of supervision which has the highest legal efficacy.'' The NPC Chairman, who until recently was saddled with the unfortunate sobriquet of ''China's liberal secret police chief'', added: ''The NPC's point of departure is the people's fundamental interests and common will. The NPC Standing Committee will further boost its links with the masses.'' Increased supervision, he said, was ''beneficial to correct decision-making, to the avoidance of errors, and to the prevention and curtailment of corrupt phenomena''.

A possible hidden message: the party and Government have made so many mistakes and become so mired in corruption that the NPC has to clean them up.

Tian, who worked closely with Qian in the short-lived campaign against leftism, or remnant Maoism, last spring, followed up with his own salvoes. The former right-hand man to ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang said last Friday: ''We must further develop democracy and further boost the people's supervision. This is very important for improving Government work.'' Most significantly, Tian is seeking the help of journalists, who have long chafed under the yoke of the ideologues. He called on the media to expose cases of party and government officials violating the constitution and the laws.

The same populist politics was espoused by Li Ruihuan, a well-respected liberal. In a speech marking the closure of the CPPCC session last month, Li said the Conference would boost ''democratic supervision''. He said: ''We will pursue supervision over the implementation of the constitution and the laws; over how major goals and policies are being carried out; and over how government units and staff are carrying out their tasks.'' The former Tianjin mayor vowed the CPPCC would ''create a democratic and harmonious environment'' so that ''freedom in raising criticism [of the party and Government] and freedom in expressing different opinions can be guaranteed''.

These liberal, people-oriented speeches stand in sharp contrast to the stiff, traditionalist addresses delivered by Jiang and Premier Li at the NPC and the CPPCC.

By throwing his weight behind the Jiang-Li axis, patriarch Deng, who masterminded this latest twist, has again opted for stability and security over liberalisation. It is, of course, premature to jump to the conclusion that the split is so severe that the moderates are ready to do battle with the conservatives.

The kind of ''popular participation'' advocated by the NPC and CPPCC leaders is a far cry from democracy as it is known in the West. It can even be argued that the CCP leadership is trying to prolong the party's monopoly of power by using the two chambers to allow the people to let off steam - and nothing more.

However, the emergence of what some analysts have called the Faction of Supervisors is highly significant for the transition. It is likely that after Deng has left the scene, a power struggle may erupt along the traditional lines of conservatives versus moderates.

If they can turn the NPC and CPPCC into a viable power base, Qiao, Tian and Li stand a good chance of supplanting the Jiang-Li clique as the dominant faction. His image as a secret policeman nothwithstanding, Qiao has come across as a strong contender for the party's ''core'' position.

Before 1949, the NPC Chairman was head of an influential body of underground student leaders in Shanghai which included Jiang, former vice-premier Wu Xueqian and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

Given his moderate stance on the June 4 crisis - the then-security chief abstained during a voting in the politburo Standing Committee in May 1989 on whether to use the army to crush the students - Qiao is in a position to co-opt former followers of ZhaoZiyang as well as cadres who want to overturn the verdict on the massacre.

Among members of the still-potent Zhao clique is Hu Qili, who was reinstated as Electronics Minister at the NPC. Heavyweights among those who want a reassessment of June 4 include the just-retired president Yang Shangkun and NPC chief Wan Li, shoved aside by Deng precisely for this reason.

Whoever wants to rule after Deng will have a gargantuan confidence crisis on their hands. The best and easiest way to gain legitimacy and popular support is to rewrite the June 4 verdict - and pin the blame on Deng, Premier Li, and Jiang.

For their own advancement - if not for historical justice - Qiao, Tian and Li, and the expanding moderate faction under them, might just be the right people to it.