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China's President Hu Jintao, left, talks with former president Jiang Zemin at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2011. (Minoru Iwasaki/Pool/REUTERS)
China's President Hu Jintao, left, talks with former president Jiang Zemin at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2011. (Minoru Iwasaki/Pool/REUTERS)

China’s former president resurfaces as party prepares to choose new leaders Add to ...

It had been so long since anyone had heard from Jiang Zemin that at one point last summer a Hong Kong television station reported that China’s former president was already dead.

So when Mr. Jiang and his wife, who live in Shanghai, very publicly took in a 150-minute musical performance at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on a recent Saturday night in Beijing, it was seen as a night out with a purpose. Political observers interpreted it not only as a signal that the 86-year-old was back in good health but also as a message that the former paramount leader was back in the capital and intending to play a role as China’s ruling Communist Party picks its next generation of leaders.

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The former general secretary of China’s Communist Party for more than a dozen years until 2002, Mr. Jiang is now – in theory – just one of its 80 million members. But he remains the de facto head of one of two political factions that are at odds over who will make up the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the nine-person grouping that is China’s ultimate decision-making body.

The outcome of the power struggle will determine which way China tilts over the coming decade. While political leanings matter less than personal loyalties in this tug-of-war, the leading members of Mr. Jiang’s faction are broadly more conservative about political and economic reforms than President Hu Jintao’s loyalists, who have generally been more outspoken about the need for change on both fronts.

That battle over the makeup of the Standing Committee is believed to still be ongoing with less than five weeks remaining before the 10-day national congress of the Communist Party opens on Nov. 8, meaning even China’s most powerful politicians don’t yet know what the top of the country’s power pyramid will look like.

A decade ago, Mr. Jiang officially handed control to Mr. Hu in the country’s first peaceful transfer of power since the Communist Revolution in 1949. But a rivalry between the two men has persisted since that time.

Mr. Jiang had no choice in naming his own successor when he stepped aside, since the late Deng Xiaoping had already named Mr. Hu as the head of what’s known as the “fourth generation” of Communist leaders. Now Mr. Jiang is seen as trying to achieve the same by forcing Mr. Hu to accept his own protégés on the fifth generation Standing Committee. There have even been reports that he took the extraordinary step of coming out of retirement to attend a recent meeting of the larger 24-person Politburo.

“Jiang Zemin still retains the role of kingmaker at the [Communist Party] congress,” said Willy Lam, an expert on Communist Party politics who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Hu Jintao doesn’t have the muscle or the tenacity to throw off Jiang Zemin’s influence.”

Mr. Jiang and his allies were already successful five years ago in blocking Mr. Hu from installing his own protégé, Li Keqiang, as the next paramount leader. The two factions compromised on Vice-President Xi Jinping – who will become general-secretary of the Communist Party in November and president next spring – and Mr. Li was given the lesser post of premier.

Members of Mr. Jiang’s group are often referred to as “princelings,” conservative-minded politicians whose influence is inherited from prominent Communist parents. Mr. Xi is considered a princeling – albeit one who has cultivated ties to Mr. Hu’s camp – along with Wang Qishan and Wang Dejiang, two vice-premiers, and Yu Zhensheng, the Communist Party boss of Shanghai. All are seen as favourites to be named to the next Standing Committee, in part because of Mr. Jiang’s sponsorship.

Mr. Hu’s allies tend to share a common background in the Communist Youth League (which Mr. Hu headed during the mid-1980s), and are broadly viewed as more reform-minded. Key figures include Mr. Li, the premier-to-be, as well as Li Yuanchao, the head of the powerful Organization Department, and Wang Yang, the boss of coastal Guangdong province.

“I don’t think there’s any great difference [between the factions] in terms of policy, only style,” said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a Hong Kong-based political commentator. “They are all leaders of the Communist Party and will put the party’s interests ahead of the people’s.”

Besides the battle over who will make up the next Standing Committee (and it’s not even yet certain whether it will have seven or nine members), analysts say another turf war is under way over whether Mr. Hu will remain as head of the Central Military Commission – and thus retain control of the three million-strong People’s Liberation Army – after handing over the leadership of the Communist Party and the government to Mr. Xi.

Mr. Jiang retained his military role until 2004, giving him a lingering influence that is believed to have irked Mr. Hu during his first years in office. Mr. Hu now seeks to retain the same control over Mr. Xi.

Mr. Lam said he believes there’s intense horse-trading going on right now, of the variety that could see Mr. Hu forced to sacrifice one of his allies’ seats on the Standing Committee if he wants to remain as head of the Central Military Commission.

But there are limits to Mr. Jiang’s influence. One of his brightest protégés was Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing who was purged from the party last week, clearing the way for criminal charges over massive corruption, abuse of power and perhaps even covering up a murder.

It’s believed that Mr. Jiang, who was close to Mr. Bo’s father, tried to shield Mr. Bo from criminal prosecution, but was convinced that the party’s image – already on the wane because of a spate of official corruption scandals – would be tarnished even further if Mr. Bo were seen as having been treated leniently.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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