IN a new Chinese leadership shuffle, President Yang Shangkun, the man many analysts once thought would oversee the power transition after paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, is widely expected to step aside in coming weeks.
The departure of the president, who is believed to have had a falling out with Mr. Deng in the last year, comes as China's ruling communists reshape the power structure to edge out aging conservatives and position younger reformers to carry on the country's economic transformation.
"This is part of the long-term, ongoing process which now very much hinges on the passing of Deng Xiaoping," says a Western diplomat who, like many Western and Chinese observers, thinks that the paramount leader is seriously ill.
According to press reports and Chinese analysts, Mr. Yang is unlikely to run for another term as president of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament whose almost 3,000 delegates start the annual two-week session March 15. The parliament session, which almost never defies China's elderly rulers, will, in addition to choosing a new leadership, take up constitutional amendments aimed at furthering economic change.
Wen Wei Po, a Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, reported that Yang, 86, failed to be nominated for election to the crucial NPC standing committee. Also not nominated was Wan Li, 77, the committee chairman and a reformer among China's elderly leadership.
In ascendancy are Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who is expected also to take over the post of president, Qiao Shi, a member of the party standing committee whom Chinese observers predict will become chairman of the congress, and Zhu Rongji, a linchpin of China's economic reforms who is expected to become executive vice-premier, Chinese analysts say.
A number of other changes at lower government levels and among provincial leaders are likely as efforts continue to cement economic changes aimed at replacing socialism with capitalist institutions.
That would position Mr. Zhu, the most prominent Chinese market reformer, to succeed Prime Minister Li Peng, who nevertheless is likely to be nominated to another five-year term. Mr. Li is a conservative associated with socialist-style planning and the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.
The leadership changes are the result of intense maneuvering following last October's Communist Party Congress, which heralded market reforms spearheaded by Mr. Deng, the paramount leader who holds no formal government title.
BEFORE the Congress, Yang, the president who was also head of the Central Military Commission, was widely expected to be a crucial figure in the power struggle anticipated after the death of the ailing Deng.
But in a move that surprised Western analysts, Yang and his half-brother, Yang Baibing, were eased out of key posts in a power play by Deng and senior professional military officers.
Yang Baibing exerted considerable clout in the military as head of ideology for the People's Liberation Army, a position he attained following the Army's massacre in Tiananmen Square almost four years ago.
Western and Chinese analysts say the Yangs were viewed with distrust for allegedly attempting to cement an independent power base and stressing communist ideology over professionalism in a military increasingly focused on modernization and high technology.
If there were losers, however, there were also surprise winners such as Mr. Jiang, the party general secretary. Before the party congress, the leader was dismissed by some Western observers as a weakened, ineffective leader.
Since then, Chinese analysts say Jiang, a fence-sitting moderate between reform and hard-line party wings, has reasserted himself and become more independent.
Also waiting in the wings are Zhu, the former Shanghai mayor who has become the spokesman for China's market reforms, and Mr. Qiao, often described as a moderate but shadowy figure who headed the country's powerful security apparatus.
"Zhu Rongji and Qiao Shi will be the ones to watch as the party leaders jockey for position when Deng Xiaoping goes," says a senior Chinese journalist.