Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese president who was declared dead by a Hong Kong television station last year, is back in the headlines on the eve of a once-a-decade leadership transition in China, where retired elders have long influenced the political horse-trading process.
On Oct. 19 the official People’s Daily reminded readers that late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once called Jiang, 86, a “qualified” Communist Party leader. The paper’s website the next day reported Jiang met university officials in Beijing and included a picture. Xinhua News Agency said Oct. 21 he congratulated his old middle school on its 110th anniversary.
Jiang’s appearances less than three weeks before the start of the Communist Party Congress signals to fellow cadres that he is healthy and involved in negotiations over who will run China for the next decade, according to analysts including John Lee of the University of Sydney. The reports may be aimed at projecting stability during a transition that’s been roiled by the ouster of Politburo member Bo Xilai and heir-apparent Xi Jinping’s two-week public absence in September.
“His public appearances are probably calculated to advance both his presence and the standing of his preferred candidates within the party,” said Lee, an adjunct professor at the university’s Centre for International and Security Studies. “The involvement of elders is seen by the Party as a stabilizing rather than destabilizing factor since the psychological factor of continuity rather than radical change is much more comforting.”
Party elders have long been involved in the succession process, with their blessing of the next generation seen as crucial. Deng supported Jiang’s promotion to party general secretary after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, claimed the leadership mantle by touting the endorsement of the Great Helmsman, who reportedly told him that “with you in charge, I am at ease.”
Jiang served as party general secretary from 1989 to 2002. China’s economy more than tripled in size during his time in power and is now the world’s second-largest.
This year has seen new challenges for the party, including Bo’s ouster and expulsion from the Communist Party over the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, along with Xi’s unexplained absence. On Oct. 18, China reported third-quarter economic growth eased to 7.4 percent from a year earlier, the seventh straight deceleration.
Jiang’s most prominent protege is Xi, the current vice president who is set to succeed President Hu Jintao as general secretary at the congress beginning Nov. 8 and assume the mantle of president next year, according to Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Other proteges include Chongqing Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, he said.
Jiang has waged a power struggle with Hu for more than a decade and the fact that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful ruling body, is forecast to include Zhang and Liu -- and not Hu ally Wang Yang -- suggests a victory for Jiang, according to Lam.
“These media appearances so close to a major event mean something -- he is definitely out on maneuvers,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing who is now a professor at the University of Sydney. “He wants people close to him in the new line up. And I suppose a more benign interpretation is that is stresses continuity.”
Jiang’s involvement also exposes the weakness of the methods by which China’s leaders are chosen, illustrating the complex and informal transition process, University of Sydney’s Lee said. The prolonged influence of elders makes it “more rather than less difficult to change policy direction in the absence of dramatic events,” he said.
Jiang largely disappeared from public view last year, and his absence from the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary celebrations in July 2011 led to speculation about his health. On July 6 of that year, Hong Kong’s Asia Television Ltd. reported that Jiang had died, prompting Xinhua to issue a rebuttal that reports of his death were “pure rumor.”
Jiang met with the president and party secretary of Shanghai Ocean University on Oct. 9 in Beijing, the People’s Daily website reported Oct. 20. A photograph of the meeting showed a white-haired Jiang wearing a gray suit and blue tie. On Oct. 15 Xinhua reported Jiang sent condolences on the passing of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk.
“The signal is clear -- the new leadership team is something Jiang has played a crucial role in picking,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Pei said he expected mentions of Jiang to stop once the party congress ends, since more appearances could take attention away from Xi and the party’s other new leaders.
“He has to be careful about not overshadowing the new leader, Xi, after the party congress is over,” Pei said. “If Jiang keeps appearing in public after Nov. 15, this could send the wrong signal, something suggesting his continuing influence.”