Zeng Qinghong? Isn't he a pop singer?" asks Qing Qing, a thirtysomething Chinese woman from the northeast, with conviction slowly fading from her face. Most Chinese could be forgiven for not knowing the bespectacled and seemingly affable man who rose in November to the No. 5 position on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Zeng is not a household name, after all, and most eyes at the Party Congress were focused on Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang Zemin as China's top leader. But Zeng is no stranger to Chinese politics, and he could soon emerge as the most powerful man in China.
By all accounts, the 63-year-old Zeng is much stronger than his ranking would suggest. For more than a decade he served as Jiang Zemin's leading protege and hatchet man, playing a major, if behind-the-scenes, role in Beijing's corridors of power. Zeng now heads the party secretariat, which handles the day-to-day affairs of the party, and in December was handed control of the Central Party School, the top training ground for up-and-coming cadres. But Zeng's resume is likely to grow longer. When the National People's Congress convenes in March, he stands a good chance of being named vice president in charge of foreign affairs, and he may even be tapped as a vice chairman for the influential Central Military Commission. "Zeng is the real power in the day-to-day business of the party," says one political analyst in Beijing. "If he becomes vice president with responsibility for foreign relations as well, what else will be left for Hu Jintao?"
Zeng was born into a political life. The son of respected revolutionary heroes--his father served as a Red Army general and his mother was one of the few women to survive the communists' epic Long March--Zeng has an impeccable pedigree. He grew up in Beijing, playing with other princelings and making the connections that would later establish him as an influential insider. His father, as if aware of his son's future, encouraged him to study the history of the Ming and Ching dynasties to glean insights into the vagaries of court politics.
Zeng first caught Jiang's attention in 1989, when the former Chinese leader was the Shanghai party chief. As protests erupted in Beijing and elsewhere, Jiang, with Zeng as his counsel, deftly kept a lid on the violence. When Jiang was named general secretary of the Communist Party later that year, he had one request: he wanted to bring Zeng to the capital with him.
It was a smart move. Zeng steered his political master through the treacherous maze of Beijing politics for 13 years. In 1992 he helped bring down the powerful PLA Gens. Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing, who threatened Jiang's support within the military. Then, targeted by a Zeng-orchestrated anticorruption campaign, Beijing party strongman and Jiang nemesis Chen Xitong was pushed aside. The newly elevated Politburo Standing Committee, stacked as it is with Jiang loyalists, bears all the marks of a Zeng power play. Minxin Pei, a China scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, "He's such a good operator that he inspires fear as well as resentment."
It's still anybody's guess what feelings he inspires in Hu. Chinese national television--as if to prove there is no rivalry--recently broadcast the two men smiling together as they traipsed around a former revolutionary base in Hebei province. There's reason to believe their partnership is genuine. "Both men belong to the fourth generation [of Chinese leaders], are reform-minded and have been working closely," says the Beijing political analyst. "They share more common points than differences."
But one of those similarities may be a hunger for power. Zeng is the most formidable member of the new leadership and, given his close ties to Jiang, the most likely to challenge Hu in a struggle for dominance. A tussle at the top wouldn't necessarily be a battle over ideas. "I don't think Zeng's a real believer in any ideology," says Wu Guoguang, a professor at Chinese University in Hong Kong and a former Chinese official. "He just believes in power and in sustaining the current regime." After years as Jiang's right-hand man, China's Machiavelli may be more interested in serving himself than another political master. "The Chinese system doesn't tolerate two strong people," says Pei, adding: "Heaven cannot have two gods, and a country cannot have two emperors." As a careful student of history, Zeng may know that better than anyone.