Jiang Zemin, China's military chief and longtime senior leader, might formally step down today, putting President Hu Jintao in full command of the Chinese army, state and governing party, according to people informed of the proceedings of a secretive Communist Party meeting.
Jiang's retirement, which has not been confirmed by official sources, would come as a surprise to many political experts, who expected him to remain chairman of the Central Military Commission and the de facto senior leader until 2007.
It remains possible that his resignation, submitted this month and said to be under consideration by a top decisionmaking body, might be rejected. But Jiang, 78, who became China's top political and military leader after the crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in 1989, has come under heavy pressure to allow a new generation of leaders to grapple with China's mounting political and economic challenges.
People who have seen Jiang or spoken to his relatives in recent weeks say he has serious health problems. One person said he has throat cancer; another said he has persistent heart troubles. It was unclear whether these health issues might have forced Jiang to retire before he was ready, or whether they might provide a cover story for a decision that has more to do with internal politicking.
Hu, 61, who took Jiang's titles of Communist Party chief in 2002 and president in 2003, has put forward plans to inject more transparency and discipline into the one-party political system and to raise incomes of blue-collar workers and peasants.
But Hu has imposed stricter controls on the media than those that existed when Jiang held China's top titles, and he has ruled out experimenting with Western-style democracy. He remains an enigma, a carefully crafted product of the Communist Party system whose innate reserve appears to have been magnified by behind-the-scenes tussles for influence with Jiang.
Though Hu and Jiang have not openly clashed over policy matters, several party officials have argued that they had become the effective standard-bearers for rival schools of thought on many domestic and foreign policy issues. The notion that there are two camps at the top might have made lower-level officials less inclined to carry out policies they oppose, including the continuing campaign to slow China's overheated economy and curtail wasteful state spending.
Numerous questions remain about Jiang's actions. Among them is why he submitted his resignation a short time after party officials said he appeared to be trying to enhance his authority.
In recent months, he has promoted numerous military officials to higher posts. Experts took that as a sign that he was solidifying his control of the military rather than preparing to hand his responsibilities to Hu, as had been agreed before the leadership transition in 2002. State media also increased its coverage of Jiang in recent months.
Party officials say that in recent private meetings with leading scholars, Jiang challenged the economic program pursued by Hu and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister.
This year, Jiang opposed and effectively sidelined a new framework for China's foreign policy that Hu had developed. Jiang argued that a slogan Hu had begun using to describe China's ambitions as a great power, "peaceful rise," sent the wrong signal at a time when Beijing was warning Taiwan that moves toward independence would provoke military retaliation.
Jiang was active enough in recent weeks that several well-informed political analysts in Beijing said they suspected his proffered resignation might be a trick to mobilize his core constituency or to fend off the attacks from party elders anxious for him to retire. Those people speculated that Jiang might have intended to have his resignation rejected, perhaps on the ground that sensitive foreign policy problems, including those involving Taiwan and North Korea, required his continued attention.
That remains possible. But two people informed about the leadership's decisionmaking process said they expected the full 198-member Central Committee to vote on Jiang's resignation and a new slate of candidates to fill slots on the Central Military Commission before its annual four-day session ends today.