Breaking with a long-standing succession plan, President Jiang Zemin appears to be angling to stay on as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and is campaigning from the shadows to bolster his claim to retain power, according to party sources and other analysts in China.

If Jiang succeeds in his effort to avoid retiring on schedule, it would take China off the road to a smooth transfer of power mapped out in the mid-1990s by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who died in 1997, and could open up a generational struggle within the Communist Party.

Under Deng's plan, Jiang, 76, was to be succeeded by Vice President Hu Jintao, 59, who over the last three years has moved quietly but aggressively to place his allies in important positions. The plan dictated that not only the top echelon but the entire party leadership be handed from what is known as China's third generation of leaders to its fourth. About half the Politburo's seven-man standing committee and other senior party and military officials were expected to retire.

Hu and his generation were to be anointed this fall at the 16th Congress of the Communist Party of China, a gathering of 2,000 to 3,000 senior party representatives from China's 32 provinces and major cities, the military, government ministries and major state-owned enterprises. China's government has said preparations for the congress are proceeding smoothly. But it appears now that it could be held as late as November because of continued wrangling and the travel plans of top party leaders, including Jiang, Premier Zhu Rongji and the legislative chief, Li Peng.

In the meantime, sources said, Jiang's followers are using an unprecedented propaganda campaign, along with articles planted in the Hong Kong Chinese-language media, to promote the idea that their champion should retain power. Jiang's attempt to stay on is backed mainly by provincial leaders, the military and top ministry officials, party sources said, because they oppose Deng's road map and fear a transfer of power to a younger generation.

These officials have expressed alarm about Hu's personnel maneuvers over the past three years and are concerned that such a shake-up would threaten the power and perquisites they have painstakingly amassed over the 13 years of Jiang's rule, said the sources, who have access to party documents and in some cases work for senior leaders.

But younger, middle-level party members and government officials worry that Jiang's continued rule would only intensify the party's legitimacy crisis. If Jiang sticks around as party chairman, Chinese analysts predict, competing factions will emerge for the first time since a party struggle created conditions for the demonstrations -- and the subsequent crackdown -- at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Chinese analysts note that since the Communist revolution in 1949, every instance of major instability, from the anti-rightist campaign of 1956 to the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown, has been triggered by rifts within the party.

Jiang's move suggests that what Chinese and Western analysts had thought would be Communist China's smoothest political transition ever is turning out to be another dogfight -- not over ideology, but over power. The uncertainty shows that, despite unparalleled economic growth over the past 24 years of economic reforms, the upper echelons of the party have yet to come up with a way to pass on power without the danger of policy paralysis or political struggle.

This story, describing that uncertainty and the extent of secrecy within China's ruling apparatus, is the latest in a series examining the sources of power and how they work in today's fast-evolving China.

Ready for a Change

Chinese sources stress that Jiang's success is not guaranteed and that he may back off if he can ensure his influence by stacking the Politburo with allies. These would include the party's personnel chief, Zeng Qinghong; the Guangdong province party chief, Li Changchun; and perhaps Deputy Premier Li Lanqing.

Hu has few tools at his disposal other than the weight of public opinion; after 13 years of Jiang, the public is ready for a new face. Negotiations will intensify during the party's annual gathering, which is underway at the summer resort of Beidaihe.

Like most political struggles in China over the past two decades, this one is being carried out mostly in the shadows. Specifically, Jiang is using a propaganda drive about his latest modification of Marxist theory as a way to stake a claim to continued rule. Although this tactic may seem incongruous to a Westerner, power in the stratosphere of the Chinese Communist Party is often wielded in unknowable and unpredictable ways.

Jiang's political campaign revolves around a new Marxist political theory, called the "Three Represents." China's media have portrayed the Three Represents as the savior of the party. It is, in Jiang's words, "the basis for the party, the foundation for the party's rule, its source of strength and a big theoretical weapon to further perfect and develop our country's socialist system."

By claiming the party should now represent China's "advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the broad masses of the people," the new theory implies that the party should switch its focus to the interests of China's growing middle class, business owners and white-collar workforce -- and away from its traditional reliance on the bureaucracy, farmers and working class.

Jiang wants the Three Represents to be written into the party constitution, cementing his claim for continued influence. Organs of the Communist Party have spent the past seven weeks, since Jiang spoke out at the Central Party School on May 31, churning out reports equating his new theory to the two other pillars of Chinese communism: Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory.

The problem for Jiang, and for the party, is that so far what is known about the Three Represents is limited to a collection of slogans. Senior party theoreticians have imbued it with great meaning in essays and interviews published and broadcast daily as part of Jiang's campaign. But Jiang has given only three speeches about the idea, and the full text of only one speech has been published.

Another problem is that although many Chinese were initially attracted to the ideas behind the Three Represents, which sought to narrow the widening gap between the party and society, now the theory has been linked so completely to Jiang's future that it has lost much of its original meaning.

"It's become a symbol for Jiang," said a party official. "If you support Three Represents you support Jiang. If you're lukewarm, then you don't."

Hints of Retirement

China's leaders have traditionally chosen their own successors. Mao chose Hua Guofeng, who lasted two years. Deng chose Jiang. But Deng also chose Hu. Jiang had no hand in Hu's appointment and, party officials said, has never completely trusted him.

Nonetheless, party officials said, until late last year the three men at the top of China's political pile had let it be known that they would step down at the party congress this fall.

In a speech last June at Qinghua University, where he used to work, Premier Zhu, by far the most open of the top leaders, hinted strongly that he planned to leave government service. Li, the party's legislative leader, and Jiang himself also dropped hints to that effect.

"There was a general agreement to make way for Hu," said a senior party official in Henan province.

Hu is largely unknown in China although he has been floating around the political stage for decades. He was the youngest chairman ever of the party's Communist Youth League, has held top positions in Tibet and Guangxi, worked in Gansu province and has been on the Politburo standing committee since Deng put him there in 1992.

Although his reputation in the West is one of relative meekness, and in his public appearances Hu always defers to Jiang, behind the scenes Hu has been preparing to take over, sources said.

Since Hu was appointed vice president in 1998, the number of his acquaintances from the Youth League who moved into the government has skyrocketed. This started in February 1999, with the appointment of Li Keqiang as governor of Henan province. Since then, Hu's allies have become deputy party secretaries and other top officials in Beijing and in 15 provinces, including Hainan, Shandong, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Guangxi, Jilin, Jiangsu and Fujian.

Chinese sources said these moves frightened provincial party leaders, who assumed that once the transition occurred in Beijing, they would be out of a job or, worse, left facing corruption probes. These officials owe their positions to Jiang. His chief aide, Zeng Qinghong, has run the party's personnel bureau since 1999.

"The message was clear," said a party source in Shandong. "Hu's men were going to take over once Hu got hold of power. Obviously, people were opposed."

In a series of meetings around China starting in early January, provincial party leaders began to call on Jiang to continue as party chairman. The military chimed in, reiterating a long-standing call that Jiang should also stay in his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The military's upper echelons are also due for a major cleaning. "Almost every general wants Jiang to stay," said one military officer. "But every senior colonel and below wants him to go."

According to one party official with access to information about the meetings, provincial leaders warned that the men Hu had promoted were also linked to another Youth League chairman, Hu Yaobang, the former party secretary whose death in April 1989 touched off the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Jiang is sensitive about the issue because Deng catapulted him to power after the 1989 crackdown, raising questions about his legitimacy ever since.

In March, a Hong Kong publication, the Mirror, retracted earlier predictions that Jiang was ready to step down, devoting an entire issue to arguing that, for the sake of China, Jiang should stay on. The article, said one senior Chinese journalist, was prepared by pro-Jiang officials in Beijing, a charge denied by the Mirror's editor in chief, Lin Wen.

The campaign broke into the open following Jiang's May 31 speech on the Three Represents at the Central Party School. Since then China's nightly news has been filled with paeans to the Three Represents.

On June 24, the campaign intensified with an interview with Qian Xuesen, the 89-year-old father of China's rocketry program who was hounded out of the United States during the McCarthy period in the early 1950s. The interview, published in the People's Daily, the party organ, lavished praise on Jiang, calling him a "great scientist" with "broad interests" and commending his leadership of the military.

"Chairman Jiang's Three Represents is an awesome event," Qian enthused. "It will influence China's development for a long time to come. I am studying it now."

Chinese sources said that Qian was too feeble to participate in an interview. The article was written by Qian's secretary on behalf of the party, the sources said.

So far, only China's weak but vociferous left wing has sought to oppose Jiang's power play. Deng Liqun, a senior leftist and a member of the party's Central Committee, led the distribution of a letter in January -- when word first leaked of Jiang's intentions -- that opposed the idea of a lifetime term of office.

China's liberals, so far, have been silent.

Zhu, who as premier is number three in the party hierarchy, has given no hint publicly about what he thinks. Chinese sources said Jiang succeeded in crushing Zhu in 1999 following Zhu's trip to the United States, in which he failed to come home with a deal on China's accession to the World Trade Organization, nullifying him as a possible brake on Jiang's ambitions. Li Peng, who occupies the number two position, has been effusive in his praise of the Chinese president.

Chinese sources said Li, 74, has reasons for backing Jiang. For one, Li has family problems. His wife, two sons and daughter have all been the subject of widespread rumors involving deals in China's power sector, which Li ran during the 1980s.

Jiang, too, has reason to be concerned about his family if Hu's team wins too much power, the Chinese sources said. One of his sons was a major investor in telecommunications companies that received favorable treatment when China reorganized the industry this year, they explained.

Frayed Relationships

The political struggle is occurring against a background of what senior officials readily acknowledge is the party's failure to keep pace with China's fast-changing, increasingly market-driven society.

The party's relations with the working class and farmers are at an all-time low. A recent report in one party publication called the deterioration of relations with the peasantry "a strikingly widespread problem" and accused party officials in rural areas of being involved in murders and tax ripoff schemes.

Party membership is at an all-time high -- 63 million members, up from about 50 million 10 years ago. But in the most vital parts of China's society, in its private and foreign-invested enterprises, the party barely exists. Only 1.3 percent of private enterprises have party cells, for example.

Non-state-owned enterprises, including private, foreign-invested and collective enterprises, now account for more than 50 percent of the gross domestic product. From 1990 to 1999, the output of private firms grew almost 50 percent. This trend will only accelerate now that China is in the World Trade Organization.

During 13 years of WTO negotiations, perhaps the most important concession Chinese leaders made was the implicit recognition that the system Mao Zedong built -- the communes, state enterprises, work units, central planning apparatus and politically subservient bureaucracies -- was a source of weakness for the party, not of strength.

Jiang floated the idea of welcoming entrepreneurs into the party, therefore, not out of largess but because the party had lost control of the engine of economic development. The questions are whether the party can win it back and whether Jiang should continue at the controls while it tries.

At an exhibition in Beijing glorifying the Communist Party leadership, a man examines a guidebook next to a large portrait of President Jiang Zemin.