Ahead of China’s party congress, ex-leaders pop up to show clout


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BEIJING –- Apropos of seemingly nothing, the TV program “Music World Today” on China’s state-run channel 15 launched into a 30-minute segment Friday about a schmaltzy, obscure tune, “Moonlight and Shadows,” from the 1936 American film “The Jungle Princess.” But invited guest Chen Lin, a 90-year-old professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, quickly clued viewers in to its significance.

This spring, he said, he received a call from Li Lanqing, who served as vice premier under President Jiang Zemin from 1998 to 2003. The former president, now 86, was urgently looking for the sheet music for the song, which he had enjoyed as a young man in his revolutionary days, Li said. Chen helped a composer notate the melody and words. (Sample lyric: “Even in shadows, I feel no alarm, while I hold you tight, in the jungle light, my dear ...”)


“This beautiful romantic song, for it to be able to reappear, to be restored, and for us to be able to remember it, all the credit should go to our comrade Jiang Zemin,” Chen said on the program.

As China prepares to begin a major Communist Party leadership transition next week, hardly a day goes by without a fresh TV or newspaper report highlighting the recent activities of a former leader, many of whom have been out of the limelight for years.

While the appearances by and references to the retired cadres may seem awkward, comical or just downright dull, analysts say they serve a purpose: They’re telegraphing that these old-timers are alive, well and trying to play a role in shaping policy and determining appointments ahead of the 18th Party Congress.

“Such stories serve to demonstrate that Jiang is still active, still healthy and maintains a strong influence,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Besides the 86-year-old Jiang’s contributions to preserving musical history (“Moonlight and Shadows” also was featured in a People’s Daily story Wednesday), former Premier Li Peng made headlines with a recent $476,000 donation to a scholarship fund and a letter congratulating Jilin province on a new hydropower dam.

Li Ruihuan, 78, former head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Wu Yi, 74, a former vice premier, made news when they took in a tennis match at the China Open last month.

Some observers saw a more direct message when former Premier Zhu Rongji, 84, turned up at Tsinghua University recently with his protégé and current Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a front-runner for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. Also present was the only female in contention for the Standing Committee, Liu Yandong.

But it is Jiang’s appearances that are drawing the most attention. First he popped up at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts with his wife. Next, the People’s Daily wrote a front page story about him sending condolences to Cambodia’s queen mother on the death of her husband (current President Hu Jintao’s extension of sympathies got secondary billing). Jiang was photographed Oct. 9 meeting with the president of Shanghai Ocean University; two weeks ago he was busy making an inscription for the 110th anniversary of his high school.

“Among all these personalities, Jiang is the most important, and he’s the most adamant about refusing to fade into the sunset. So he’s still playing a role in the personnel arrangements for the Party Congress,” said Willy Lam, a China scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If one [retired official] sees others becoming active, they become a bit jealous, they want a share of the limelight. So the major factor was Jiang’s series of reappearances after an absence of at least one year.”

The weeklong Party Congress kicks off next Nov. 8, and the new Politburo Standing Committee will be unveiled at the end of the gathering. The panel has nine members; seven are expected to retire. The two holdovers are Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang; Xi is slated to assume the top position of party secretary from Hu, while Li may take on the role held by Premier Wen Jiabao.

Most observers expect the new Standing Committee will have a total of seven, not nine, members, which means jockeying for the five available slots has been particularly intense. Lam said Wednesday that he believed one slot might still be undecided.

“The fact remains, this is a political system that’s ruled by personality rather than rule of law. It’s up to the whims and machinations of strongmen,’ Lam said. ‘Though Hu has been talking about increasing democracy within the party, nothing substantial has been achieved in terms of reform.”

“This unfortunate state of affairs gets magnified because Hu Jintao is a very timid person,’ Lam added. ‘Even though he’s been in power 10 years, he still prefers to defer to Jiang Zemin.”

Jiang stepped down as party secretary in 2002, turning the position over to Hu. But in an effort to keep a substantial hand in national affairs, Jiang remained for two more years as chair of the party’s Central Military Commission before ceding that role to Hu.

As Hu prepares to wind down his decade as party secretary, though, he may follow the example set by Jiang and refuse to immediately give up the military commission chairmanship to Xi. That may leave Xi with not one, but two, ex-leaders looking over his shoulder.

“Xi is going to have to deal with Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin,” Lam said. “He will face hurdles in terms of consolidating his position and coming into his own.”


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-- Julie Makinen. Tommy Yang in the Times Beijing bureau contributed.