Hu is more subdued. People who have met him describe a bland bookworm with a photographic memory, a stiff smile and an overriding sense of caution. His faction is often referred to as “tuanpai,” for the Communist Youth League he once led and mined for allies.
As the party congress has neared, Jiang has emerged from relative seclusion, making his presence felt with several highly public appearances. One of the first came in April, with reports of a meeting between Jiang and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, just a week after the party began its purge of former Chongqing communist chief Bo Xilai, for whom Jiang was considered a patron. That outing was seen as an early signal that Jiang intended to play a large role in the transition.
But one person with access to senior Chinese leaders warned that it is “not entirely fair to say this is a fight between two men.”
“It would also be a mistake to interpret the competition as personal hostility or disagreement,” the person said. “This is primarily a battle over personnel.”
A former party official agreed. Although Hu and Jiang had different focuses during their tenures, past leaders tend not to meddle directly in policy once retired, the former official said. “That’s why the appointments of their allies matter so much; it becomes their primary way of exerting any influence and protecting their interests.”
Hu has lost at least one major fight, failing to see his protege Li Keqiang named as his successor. Instead, Xi, a compromise candidate with Jiang’s approval, was chosen for the job in 2007, party experts say, and Li was positioned for the lower job of premier.
And if lists being circulated among party officials and experts are to be believed, Jiang has been similarly successful in elevating his allies over Hu’s into many of the next Standing Committee’s seats.
But some political watchers caution that Hu may be playing a deeper game, bargaining away slots on the Standing Committee for seats on the less powerful but more plentiful Politburo or perhaps preserving a seat for himself or Li on the commission that oversees the military.
A few also theorize that Hu is looking at this period in his presidency differently than Jiang — that he may want to leave the incoming leadership less vulnerable to the machinations of elders.
“You could argue that Hu sees himself as a selfless representation of the party, its integrity and institutionalization. He wields power but doesn’t play the game quite the same way Jiang does,” said Chris Johnson, a former top CIA analyst for China who is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.