Reports that China may postpone a crucial congress of its ruling Communist Party are indicative of factional power struggles behind the scenes ahead of a key leadership transition, political sources said on Wednesday.
Party leaders are "seriously considering" a delay in the forthcoming 18th Party Congress by a few months as internal debate rages over who will form China's next generation of leaders, Reuters news agency quoted political sources as saying.
But sources in Beijing told RFA that such a move is unlikely, as it is highly unpopular with former president Jiang Zemin, whose "Shanghai clique" still wields huge power and influence in Chinese politics.
"[A postponement] won't happen," the source said. "Now we have the old man from Shanghai who has begun to oppose [the idea], and he wields more clout in this regard than the other two."
By "the other two," the source indicated outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, whose recent calls for political reform have sparked renewed debate within Party ranks, and ousted Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who is now at the center of a political scandal linked to an international murder investigation.
The source said Wen's calls for reform are likely to go unheeded ahead of the leadership transition, meaning that his supporters are now unlikely to win promotion.
"[Wen] is finished and so are all his followers," the source said.
The fallout from the scandal surrounding Bo, whose wife has been named as a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November, has left China's leadership facing the biggest political crisis since the crushing of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
Party officials have already begun investigating claims from lawyers that Bo's anti-mafia campaigns in the southwestern megacity targeted as many innocent billionaires, confiscating their money and torturing them for confessions, as it did real crime bosses.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations for top leadership posts—for which Bo was once seen as a key contender—are now being complicated by former President Jiang Zemin, who is determined to influence the next generation of leadership, the Beijing source said.
Most contentious are likely to be the size and make-up of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee, which has run China for more than three decades after late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping rejected the cult-like status of his predecessor, Mao Zedong.
According to Reuters, the top two jobs—of president, who is also Party general secretary, and of premier, who heads the government and traditionally steers the economy—are unlikely to be in doubt, with Xi Jinping still the most likely option to succeed incumbent president Hu Jintao.
'Second half of the year'
A second source familiar with the highest echelons of Party politics said that China's leaders never announce the timing of major Party meetings until they have already made all the key political decisions.
"If the 18th Party Congress were to be postponed, there would have to be a huge and compelling reason for it," the source said.
Two out of the last four congresses have been held in October. However, the official Xinhua news agency has already reported that the 18th Party Congress will be held in "the second half of the year," giving China's leaders some flexibility.
"Even if they were going to postpone it, the central government wouldn't make the decision this early on," the Beijing source said. "They would be looking to consider this or that factor in July or August before making a final decision."
But he added: "If the date of the 18th Party Congress were to be postponed, that would mean there had been a huge incident that made it impossible for the congress to run smoothly, and that they had no choice but to postpone it."
"In such a scenario, the Party would have lost its ability to preserve the appearance of internal unity and stability," the source said.
Meanwhile, a Hunan-based editor of a Party newspaper surnamed Xiao said he thought postponement was unlikely.
"We have nine leaders on the [Politburo] standing committee nowadays, not just one person dictating everything, so I think postponement is pretty unlikely," he said.
Bo's political elimination has opened the field for posts on the standing committee, which is usually formed after careful calculations of political relationships and intra-Party loyalties.
The new standing committee members start in their new roles in the parliamentary session in the March following a leadership transition, when China's cabinet, the State Council, also undergoes a reshuffle.
Beijing-based scholar Gao Yu said a postponement would have the benefit of extending President Hu's time in office, and thus his ability to influence outcomes in the wake of Bo's fall from grace.
"Obviously it will benefit them if their time in office can be legally extended," Gao said, adding that a fierce power struggle is currently under way in Beijing.
"It all has to do with the Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun incident," Gao said.
The Feb. 6 flight of former Chongqing police chief Wang to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu sparked Bo's removal from office. Both men are now under investigation for "serious violations" of Party discipline at an unknown location.
"It's basically about how to deal with Bo Xilai; whether he's similar to the two Chens or whether he's more like the Gang of Four," Gao said, in a reference to the corruption trials of former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu.
In 1976, the fall of the Gang of Four marked the end of the Mao era.
All four members, including Mao's wife Jiang Qing, were handed life sentences at a trial in 1981 for "serious crimes" including the persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1766-1976) of hundreds of thousands of people.
Xiao said the Party Congress would be postponed only if there had been a total failure in negotiations over the next generation of leaders, in particular the president and Party chief.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.