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Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, and former president Jiang Zemin arrive for the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2012. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, and former president Jiang Zemin arrive for the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2012. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Hu’s final speech as leader signals rift among China’s ruling elite Add to ...

There was the speech Hu Jintao gave, and the one he wanted to give.

The outgoing leader of China’s ruling Communist Party gave a straight-up defence of his record – mixed with warnings about the dangers posed by official corruption – during a 101-minute speech at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday. Though Mr. Hu was obviously looking to cement his legacy as someone who led China through a period of astonishing economic growth, there were also rare signs of a behind-the-scenes rift with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was prominent on stage during Mr. Hu’s speech.

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Mr. Hu’s speech had some notable omissions from the longer, written version that was handed out afterward, leading to questions about who was able to censor what he said, from the podium, and why. There were concerns that Mr. Hu’s inability to deliver his full remarks may mean the party’s more liberal wing has lost a behind-the-scenes power struggle.

China is in the middle of a once-in-a-decade shift in power. The week’s events – and Mr. Hu’s speech – are being closely watched for signs the country is undergoing a change in direction, and how the balance between the reformers and hard-liners is playing out.

Left off the speech were comments calling for more internal party democracy – rather than the opaque process the Communists currently use to select new leaders – as well as criticism of how families of senior party members have accumulated vast wealth.

Taken together, the unprecedented omissions suggest Mr. Hu may have lost a power struggle to Mr. Jiang, who came on stage immediately after Mr. Hu at Thursday’s opening of a key Communist Party congress, to a swell of applause from the 2,270 assembled delegates. The two men sat alone before a backdrop of red flags, leaving the impression the 86-year-old Mr. Jiang, though theoretically retired, remains Mr. Hu’s equal when it comes to clout within the party.

Among the remarks Mr. Hu left unsaid was a blunt call for Communist Party leaders to be chosen based on their “merit” and “popular support,” words that could be interpreted as a last-ditch appeal by Mr. Hu to have the membership of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo – the most powerful body in China’s one-party system – selected by internal vote, rather than backroom manoeuvres.

It’s possible that it was Mr. Hu, 69, who chose to leave the potentially controversial remarks unspoken. He said at the outset of his address that he would not read the report in full, but would only “focus on some highlights.”

But Willy Lam, an expert in Communist Party politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it was unprecedented to have two different versions of the general secretary’s work report, as the address to the party congress is known. In another break from tradition, the written version of the speech was made available to journalists only after Mr. Hu had finished speaking, making it difficult for anyone listening to notice what was being omitted.

The next Standing Committee, which is expected to be reduced to seven members from its current nine, will be introduced at the end of the week-long party congress. A pitched behind-the-scenes battle over membership of this all-important committee has exacerbated an old divide between Mr. Hu’s loyalists and those who owe their careers to Mr. Jiang.

The latter faction is comprised largely of party “princelings,” the offspring of famous Communist revolutionaries who believe it’s their turn to rule the country.

“We should improve the system of intraparty election, and standards governing multi-candidate nomination and election, and create procedures and a climate that fully embody the will of voters,” reads the written version of Mr. Hu’s report to the party congress.

“We should appoint officials on their merits, without regard to their origins,” Mr. Hu wrote, in a remark that could be seen as a shot at the party’s princelings. “[We should] promote officials who are outstanding in performance and enjoy popular support.”

The latter is seen as a reference to an internal party poll that was reportedly conducted in May, according to the South China Morning Post. Some 370 senior party members were asked who they would like to see on the next Standing Committee, as well as on the wider 25-person Politburo.

Two of Mr. Hu’s liberal-minded protégés, Guangdong governor Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, the head of the party’s Organization Department, are rumoured to have done well in the poll. Some believe Mr. Hu’s unspoken plea may mean he has lost the internal party struggle with Mr. Jiang, and that Mr. Wang and Mr. Li have been left off the new Standing Committee list.

No one outside the upper echelons of the Communist Party knows how the next Standing Committee will be chosen, or whether the final list has already been set. The only certainty is that Xi Jinping, who is considered a princeling because his father was a famous revolutionary commander, will succeed Mr. Hu as general secretary at the end of the week-long congress. Mr. Xi, now vice-president, will also take over from Mr. Hu as president next year.

 “Two of [Mr. Hu’s] protégés, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, are certain to now be outside of the seven [on the Standing Committee]. Hu wanted to put this at least in written form, just to tell the world he actually favours a more equitable and transparent system for picking leaders,” Mr. Lam said. “It could be a sign of his displeasure at his black box operation in which he was outfoxed by Jiang Zemin.”

If Mr. Hu was indeed signalling defeat, it could jar foreign investors, who are watching to see if Mr. Wang and Mr. Li are promoted, considering it a sign of whether China will press ahead with economic and political reforms. It’s believed that a Standing Committee dominated by princelings and Jiang loyalists would be more likely to slow or reverse economic reforms and perhaps even take as step back toward the country’s socialist past in an effort to address an income gap that has widened dramatically during Mr. Hu’s tenure.

Some of the most poignant remarks Mr. Hu did deliver involved corruption inside the Communist Party – something he warned delegates could “even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

Those remarks were sharp enough, coming in a year that has already seen one-time party star Bo Xilai charged with corruption and abuse of power. Mr. Xi, the heir apparent, and Premier Wen Jiabao have also seen their reputations damaged by foreign media reports detailing the vast wealth accumulated by their relatives. The Bloomberg news service traced upwards of $750-million (U.S.) in assets to Mr. Xi’s family, while the New York Times found Mr. Wen’s relatives were worth a combined $2.7-billion.

Mr. Hu seemed prepared to address the problem in public, but again left key written remarks unsaid. “Leading officials … should both exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff; and they should never seek any privilege,” reads the report. “We should ensure that strict procedures are followed in the exercise of power, and tighten oversight over the exercise of power by leading officials, especially principle leading officials.”

Mr. Lam said the comments about leading officials and their families were likely left out of the speech to avoid publicly humiliating Mr. Xi and Mr. Wen. Mr. Lam said Mr. Hu likely insisted on including the remarks in the printed report to protect his own legacy. “That’s for the record. He has to be seen saying something, even if he hasn’t done anything about it.”

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