Body language betrays a different story
Josephine Ma in Beijing
Body language told a better story than the rituals of the closing ceremony of the 16th party congress yesterday.
Sitting in the front row on the stage were party leaders who were about to step down, new hands likely to take over the helm, and retired party elders invited to preside over the congress in a tradition designed to lend more authority to proceedings.
The reaction of the elders seemed to be the most intriguing part of an otherwise mechanical and well-rehearsed ceremony.
During the votes on Jiang Zemin's political report, the report of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and on the amendments to the party constitution which enshrined Mr Jiang's 'Theory of the Three Representatives', all the elders raised their hands immediately to vote 'yes' - except for former National People's Congress chairman Qiao Shi and frail party elder Bo Yibo (who is perhaps too weak to move his hands).
With thousands of arms raised high in the air for more than a minute, the absence of Mr Qiao's hand was conspicuous. However, when the delegates were about to put their hands down, Mr Qiao waved his hand briefly then quickly put it down.
It happened in all three votes.
Mr Jiang, who was presiding over the voting, then said: 'Those who vote against the item, please raise their hands.' From different corners of the conference hall came the loud, clear voices of staff tallying the hands: 'None.'
'Anyone abstain from the vote?' Mr Jiang asked. Again, staff shouted one after another: 'None.'
Mr Jiang then happily declared: 'This item is passed unanimously.'
In such circumstances, to vote in dissent or even abstain would seem impossible. But it is not too difficult to speculate on the reason for Mr Qiao's apparent reluctance to vote on the agenda.
Five years ago, at the 15th Party Congress, Mr Qiao, widely perceived as a political foe of Mr Jiang, was surprisingly ousted from the party leadership and relinquished his post on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Although Mr Jiang has kept the promise he reputedly made in exchange for Mr Qiao's retirement five years ago - that he would step down at the 16th Party Congress - it is not hard to imagine the feelings of Mr Qiao during the seven-day ritual praising Mr Jiang's immortal place in modern Chinese history.
But Mr Jiang did not seem too bothered. With a relieved smile on his face, he curiously eyed the crush of photographers and journalists as they rushed in to the second floor of the Great Hall of People after having been kept waiting in another hall for about an hour while voting for the Central Committee finished.
Mr Jiang then leaned towards NPC Chairman Li Peng, sitting next to him, and started chatting with Mr Li and Li Ruihuan airily. Vice-President Hu Jintao, Mr Jiang's presumed successor as party general secretary, also cheerfully exchanged words with Vice-Premier Li Lanqing.
But Premier Zhu Rongji, seated between the two groups, did not say a word to either Mr Hu or Mr Jiang.
With a stern look on his face, one cannot help wondering what was on his mind.