- Exactly what was Zhang's position in the Chinese government between Debt of Honor and The Bear and the Dragon? When he's first introduced in Debt of Honor he gives off the vibe of being an intelligence officer, which would put him several levels below Politburo status. In Executive Orders, while presiding over the negotiations after the Airbus shootdown, the Foreign Minister seems to defer to him, giving the impression that he's at least Politburo level. But then suddenly, in The Bear and the Dragon he becomes a senior Politburo member with little to no explanation. Did Clancy just put him in some ambiguous category with no definition this whole time until it seemed convenient to have him become The Man Behind the Man in The Bear and the Dragon?
- Pretty much. Clancy was very coy with his exact position in the Chinese government, except to make sure we knew it was very high up since Debt Of Honor. In fact, in DOH, Yamata tries to seek sanctuary in Zhang's country once things go south, and Zhang's level of prior assistance and the fact he doesn't want to help Yamata due to the political fallout tells us Zhang is very high up in the government, and since he shows up again in a position where the Chinese Foreign Minster defers to him (and he again is playing The Chessmaster), his position is made a little more clear. However, by TBATD, when the whole Myth Arc ends, he apparently saw little need in trying to conceal anything, especially since Zhang flat out confirms (in private to his associates and at second hand via spy intercepts) his role in the past two books, and in TBATD we learn he's been the string puller behind the mainland Chinese government's expansionist goals the whole time.
- His stated title Minister Without Portfolio, which is usually a sinecure position. It is mentioned his involvement in politics dates back to Mao. I admit this is pure speculation on my part, but perhaps he managed, due to his lowly position, to "keep paddling" through the storms of Mao's fall, and simply used his considerable intelligence to accrue more and more power and influence throughout the subsequent Chinese governments.
- That's almost certainly correct. The topic comes up during an intelligence briefing in Executive Orders, during which Ryan's CIA director admits that they're still trying to figure out how China's power structure works. They know who the leaders are, but because the leaders have gotten so old, they've become more and more dependent on trusted assistants, advisers, and middlemen to do their work, which means these people (whom the CIA doesn't have a good handle on) have come to accumulate a lot of power. From what we learn later in the story arc, it seems clear that Zhang Han San is one of these people, who used his status as an indispensable man to eventually turn from The Consigliere to The Man Behind the Man.
Headscratchers / The Bear and the Dragon