Ever since Jiang Zemin visited the United States last year, he has basked in the glow of having been feted as an equal by the No. 1 world power, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Clinton.

Clinton's visit to China gives Jiang the chance to once again combine showmanship and statesmanship, to polish his own lackluster public appeal and to strengthen his standing among Communist Party elders.Careful stage-managing of such events has helped Jiang bring a lighter touch to the usual propaganda of wooden television appearances and jargon-laden speeches.

When the occasion calls, he cites the Gettysburg Address, chats in English, sings a show tune. During a stop in Honolulu on his way to the U.S. mainland in October, Jiang danced the hula, swam at Waikiki and even tried his hand at the Hawaiian steel guitar.

It is Jiang who claims credit for finally getting a U.S. president to pay a state visit, the first of its kind since the Chinese military's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Such high-profile diplomatic breakthroughs have helped the Soviet-schooled engineer confound those who judged him a transitory figure after party elder Deng Xiaoping installed him as Communist Party chief in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Since his ascent to the pinnacle of power, Jiang has sought to cultivate a populist image. He has toured factories, visited workers' homes and fed a banana to a farm child.

But important as image may be in securing Jiang's place in the history books, it isn't everything. Weaker politically than his predecessors, Jiang also has fortified his status as Deng's political heir with deft powerbroking.

He has installed his supporters within the party, government and military - which is of great importance for a man who, unlike revolutionary veterans Deng and Mao Tse-tung, has no army credentials.

Jiang has appeased hard-liners by talking tough on Taiwan and resisting Western criticism of China's human rights record. At the same time, he has guided pathbreaking market-oriented reforms - enlisting the aid of economic troubleshooter Zhu Rongji, who was named premier in March.

Born into an intellectual family in eastern Yangzhou city in 1926, Jiang studied electrical engineering in Shanghai and joined the Communist Party two years before it took power in 1949.

He shot to prominence when, as mayor of Shanghai in 1989, he peacefully defused pro-democracy protests in that city. The contrast with Beijing's solution - armed assault by the military - impressed Deng. He brought Jiang to Beijing to be general-secretary of the party, which was deeply divided by the aftermath of the violent crackdown.

Clinton's visit signals the end of Beijing's post-Tiananmen diplomatic isolation, and it gives Jiang a chance to show off China's rich cultural heritage and the progress made in 20 years of market-oriented reform.

Once again, Jiang will get to stand beside Clinton. Jiang and the Communist Party propaganda machine he controls are making sure the Chinese public gets the point.