China’s former leaders step into the spotlight

October 31, 2012

BEIJING — After Jiang Zemin, the 86-year-old former president of China, made his rare appearance at a concert in Beijing on Sept. 22, other retired top officials have started to join him one by one, like a coming-out party for China’s aged former leaders ahead of next month’s pivotal 18th Party Congress.

China's President Hu Jintao (L) shakes hands with former President Jiang Zemin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in this October 9, 2011 file photo. Reuters
China's President Hu Jintao, left, shakes hands with former president Jiang Zemin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in this 2011 photo. (Reuters)

The unusual sightings of the old cadres suggested that they were still the behind-the-scene bosses, having the final say about the list of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body.

On Oct. 7, Li Ruihuan, 78, former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body, and Wu Yi, 74, a former vice premier and once the most powerful woman in the party — were photographed sitting together, watching the final of the men’s singles match of the China Open. They looked young and healthy, with Li Ruihuan’s hair dyed black and Wu Yi wearing a sky-blue jacket.

Not to be outdone, Jiang popped up two days later with Wang Yeping, his wife. This time, the couple met senior officials from Shanghai Maritime University in Beijing, just as China was in a land dispute with Japan over a small island in the East China Sea.

Following Jiang, Zhu Rongji, 84, China’s “iron blood” premier in the 1990s, made an even more usual appearance in a meeting held by the Business School of Tsinghua University on Oct. 24. But he was not the only powerful one at the meeting. Wang Qishan, the current vice premier and one candidate with a strong possibility of entering the Standing Committee, and Liu Yandong, a state councilor and currently the most powerful woman in China, were both there.  Could Zhu have been signaling his support for them?

And then came former premier Li Peng, 84, known for his hard line against student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Web site of Shaanxi province’s education office announced Oct. 29 that Li had donated 3 million renminbi to set up an education fund for a university in Yan’an, the Communist Party’s capital from 1936 to 1948.

Deng Xiaoping, in the late 1980s, set the Party’s informal retirement rule, but ex-leaders don’t really have to fade away after they officially step down. They still keep their influence, especially in times of crisis.

The scandal of Bo Xilai, who was ousted earlier this year, made the coming Party Congress the most unpredictable and unstable power transition in the past three decades. Speculation has swirled on the efforts of the elder statesmen representing different factions to reenter the political fray at a critical juncture. Their appearance was widely regarded a signal sent to junior Party officials that it was still not the time for them to make decisions on their own.

All this suggested that the power of Hu Jintao, who is stepping down as China’s president, may have been eclipsed by Jiang in the new leadership lineup.

Chinese citizens cannot vote in the matter. All they can do is wait and see.

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Olga Khazan · October 31, 2012