Former Chinese Leader's Influence Holds Sway as Transition Begins

(Image Credit: Lee Jin-man/AP Photo)

After the most politically tumultuous year in a generation, which saw the scandal-ridden fall of party official Bo Xilai and the Sino-U.S. diplomatic kerfuffle over blind activist Chen Guangcheng, China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition is formally underway this week in Beijing amid signs that former president Jiang Zemin still wields plenty of influence.

During the week-long 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which takes place every five years, 2,309 delegates from across China will elect the country's new leadership. Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to be installed as the new party secretary and, hence, China's leader for the next decade.

But Xi was almost an afterthought at the opening ceremony Tuesday inside the cavernous Great Hall of the People, steps away from Tiananmen Square. He sat quietly on the front dais, reserved for China's top leaders, and ceded the spotlight not only to his immediate predecessor, President Hu Jintao, but to his political patron, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Chinese and Hong Kong-based news reports swirled around Jiang's apparent death last year. Hong Kong's Asia Television even went as far as running a premature obit. Jiang, 86, preceded Hu as president from 1993 to 2003.

The rumors of Jiang's death or even of his dwindling influence have been greatly exaggerated. Walking into the Great Hall with Hu and sitting as a commanding presence in the middle of the staged podium, with all of the Communist Party delegates surrounding him, there was no doubt that as a party elder, Jiang's grip is still firmly intact.

So much so that five out of the new seven leaders expected to be named to the Politburo's Standing Committee (essentially the group that decides the fate of China) are all protégés of Jiang, including, you guessed it, Xi Jinping.

The final lineup of the Standing Committee, while unknown to the public, is a foregone conclusion, decided upon before this congress even began. How the final lineup is stacked is a secretive process. It is reportedly done after months of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.

The New York Times reported today that the Bo Xilai scandal and several other corruption cases gave Jiang the opening to "outflank Mr. Hu to shape the new lineup."

The cavalcade of scandals this year, including one that involved a mysterious Ferrari crash in Beijing that sidelined one of Hu's top aides, brought the issue of corruption front and center today in a 90-minute speech given by President Hu to the congress.

The speech was meant to be a work report to extol the achievements of the Hu-led administration before he hands over power. Under Hu's watch, China became the world's second-largest economy, successfully hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and weathered the global financial crisis.

But there are many challenges his successors will have to tackle, including the ever-expanding gap between the rich and poor, urban and rural, an environment devastated by frenzied economic growth and corruption within their party ranks.

"Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party," Hu warned.

"If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state. We must thus make unremitting efforts to combat corruption."

Hu's speech, the last he will make as party secretary, was met with rapturous applause from the delegates, except for Jiang, who sat there stoically on the dais.

As the morning session of the congress ended, presumed leader-in-waiting Xi quietly packed up his folder of documents as his fellow party members walked right by him, including his mentor Jiang.

Xi will soon have his moment. By the end of the congress next week, Xi and several other colleagues will assume the leadership of the party and, hence, the world's most populous nation.

One person did pause on the way out to shake Xi's hand.

Hu Jintao.

And so the highly choreographed handover finally begins.

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