By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 8:19 AM
BEIJING -- Past and present Chinese leaders appeared together on army day Wednesday, celebrating the founding of the People's Liberation Army in a striking show of unity ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year.
Former President and party chief Jiang Zemin, seldom seen in public since giving up his last official title in 2004, joined current top leader Hu Jintao on stage at a ceremony celebrating the army's 80th anniversary.
The appearance of Jiang and former premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng seemed intended to show the party was united ahead of the upcoming 17th Party Congress, the specific dates of which have not been officially announced.
Although Jiang has largely faded from sight, he is believed to retain some influence through top allies in the party and the government.
A key question concerns the right to approve new appointments at the twice-a-decade party congress, which will mark a renewal of Hu's five-year tenure. Hu is expected to elevate allies and lay out his agenda for the next five years, but it isn't clear how much he will have to compromise to get his loyalists in place.
In his keynote address, Hu said the upcoming congress would produce a "comprehensive plan concerning all undertakings of the party and the country." He gave no details.
The bulk of Hu's address was devoted to praising the PLA's historic contributions to communist China. On no less than 15 occasions, he referred to the party's total command over the 2.3 million-member military _ the world's largest standing army _ repudiating calls for the army to shift its loyalties to the government instead.
"The party's absolute leadership over the armed forces means that the PLA must follow the banner and the will of the party," Hu said, standing on the dais at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's parliament next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
He stood beneath a massive red star with the date of the PLA's founding, Aug. 1, inscribed on it.
Hu also backed continued heavy support robust defense spending, which rose by 17.8 percent this year to almost $45 million. The government will "gradually increase input in national defense as the economy grows," Hu said, adding that the bulk of the money would go into improving the force's technological capabilities.
The PLA has upheld "China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity," Hu told the audience of several hundred soldiers, military retirees and civilian leaders.
Elsewhere in his speech, Hu mentioned Jiang several times and praised his "thinking on enhancing defense and military capabilities" as one of the PLA's guiding principles.
Jiang, who turns 81 this month, shuffled on and off the stage, repeatedly looked at his watch and at times appeared to doze off. He was seated between Hu and parliament chief Wu Bangguo, the party's No. 2 ranking official. Jiang shook hands with Hu after his speech but made no public comments.
However, in comments reported Wednesday by the party's official People's Daily newspaper, Jiang was quoted as saying the military should carry out its mission "under the leadership of the party center with comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary."
While Hu said the PLA was charged with maintaining China's "sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity," he did not directly mention Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory.
On Tuesday, however, Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan was quoted by state media as telling an official reception that the military would not tolerate formal independence for Taiwan in any form.
"We will absolutely not allow Taiwan to secede from China under any pretext or in any manner," Cao said.