China fever over life after Deng

FOR Beijing, the end of the century has come several years early. Everyone seems consumed by a fin-de-siecle frenzy.

The most salient dimension of apocalypse now with Chinese characteristics is, of course, the fact that, with the health of Deng Xiaoping being what it is, succession manoeuvres have reached fever pitch.

The economic malaise and peasants' revolt have highlighted the centre's weakening grip over the regions and the quasi-private sector. And the elite's total refusal to contemplate political change has put into focus the overwhelming question: can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as we know it make it into the 21st century? Since the economic failings made the front pages in late March, frenetic machinations have been taking place behind the scarlet walls of the Zhongnanhai party headquarters. With the backing of the patriarch, CCP General Secretary and President Jiang Zemin and Executive Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji have formed a power pact to tide the party over the tumult that would ensure upon Mr Deng's rendezvous with Marx.

Both Mr Jiang and Mr Zhu are frantically grabbing power. The president, who already owns titles and offices unprecedented in Communist-Chinese history, is amassing authority in sectors including the economy, ideology and the army. Unlike previous party chiefs such as Mao Zedong, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Mr Jiang has gone into the front-line in initiating economic policy.

The outlines for the on-going rectification campaign were laid down by Mr Jiang when he briefed provincial leaders in two recent emergency sessions in Shanghai and Lanzhou. The president is expected to issue a major statement on the economy at the ''summit'' of ministers and provincial chiefs that Mr Zhu will host shortly in Beijing.

A team under Mr Jiang is drafting the document Certain Questions on the Construction of the System of the Socialist Market Economy, which will be endorsed at the forthcoming Third Plenum. The ''programmatic document'' is billed as the party chief's contribution to Mr Deng's theory on market reforms.

Since the spring, Mr Jiang, in his capacity as Central Military Commission Chairman, has hogged the limelight during army functions such as bestowing ranks and insignia on six generals.

The president has apparently secured the support of the top brass by giving carte blanche to the armaments drive and to the large-scale development of army business.

Mr Zhu, whose titles and offices number second only to those of Mr Jiang, has extended his tentacles to all areas of the State Council save foreign policy.

The de facto head of government has planted proteges in such former conservative bastions as the finance and banking system and the state planning commission. With the exception of the late Zhou Enlai, Mr Zhu looks set to become Communist-China's most powerful premier.

Informed sources said in spite of their rivalry and incompatibility, the Machiavellian alliance of Mr Jiang and Mr Zhu could last into the first year or two of the post-Deng era.

However, they said, the blatant power-grabbing by the ''Jiang-Zhu axis'' and the Shanghai faction in general, had raised eyebrows. ''Jiang and Zhu have, since late 1992, transferred such a large number of their former associates in Shanghai to Beijing that Shanghainese has pretty much replaced putonghua as the power dialect in Zhongnanhai'', a source said. ''Not since 1921 [when the CCP was founded] has one faction so dominated the party''.

The source recalled that in 1990 and 1991 Mr Jiang had, with the acquiescence of Mr Deng, seconded a few dozen senior cadres from Shanghai for training at the Central Party School with the goal of installing them later in sensitive positions at the centre.

That scheme was vetoed by other party elders on the grounds that self-aggrandisement by the Shanghai clique would upset the factional balance. The growing momentum of the Jiang-Zhu juggernaut notwithstanding, other power blocs are readying a counter-punch.

The health - both physical and political - of Premier Li Peng, who represents the ''Soviet faction'' of central planners, has continued to decline. Beijing is rife with speculation that his alter ego, head of the State Council Research Office Yuan Mu, issoon to step down.

Mr Li, however, has refused to fade away. His office has asked the national media to remind the world it was the premier who had ''entrusted'' Mr Zhu to call the major economic conferences the past fortnight.

Then there is the behind-the-scenes gambit of conservative patriarchs Peng Zhen, Deng Liqun and Chen Yun, who returned to the capital last month.

The leftist campaign to curb the excesses of market reforms such as corruption and ''high living'' is informed with a poignant urgency. With the CCP on the threshold of quasi-capitalism, this will be their last stand against ''Dengist revisionism.'' Mr Peng, 91, and Mr Chen, 88, have defied rumours about their imminent deaths by summoning the last iota of energy to denounce, in internal meetings, cadre capitalism and the party's deteriorating ''work style''. Mr Deng Liqun has gone so far as labelling the ''new class'' of red capitalists and private entrepreneurs ''exploiters''.

Obviously, the conservatives see in the recent outburst of rural and urban discontent their only remaining chance to re-hoist Mao's banner of orthodox socialism.

What is most disturbing about fin-de-siecle Chinese politics, however, is that the people have ceased to pay attention to anything beyond the pocketbook. The offspring of party elders, army businessmen, and the growing number of red capitalists who have independent lines of credit, are thumbing their noses at Mr Zhu's rectification edicts.

Recent scams such as the junk-bond scandal of the Changcheng conglomerate seem to indicate the fast-buck mentality has runneth over. Foreign businessmen are struck by how entrepreneurs and speculators alike seem driven by the urge to make a killing before time runs out.

And cadre capitalists on the make are transferring billions of yuan to Hongkong and other havens in apparent anticipation of the roof caving in on the party - and their special privileges.

Then there is, of course, the mad rush of economic refugees from Fujian and other coastal provinces who are risking their all for a fling in the United States.