Deft power broker kept in step with changing of the guard
Zeng Qinghong , the de facto leader of China's princelings and a man regarded in some circles as an ultimate opportunist, will hold sway over the country's fate for years to come despite his nominal retirement.
Mr Zeng completed his metamorphosis from a man widely considered the loyal lieutenant of former party boss Jiang Zemin to a political godfather who rivalled President Hu Jintao in actual power with a silky smoothness.
Shrewd, well-connected and able to sense the change in political winds better than anyone else, the 68-year-old has fashioned himself into the Communist Party's top powerbroker.
His fingerprints are all over the reshuffle of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee unveiled yesterday.
Mr Zeng, whose father was a revolution-era military commissar and mother a veteran who made the Long March, is now seen as a force in his own right and is set to influence China's politics from behind the scenes despite his departure from the top rank.
Unlike his rival-turned-ally Mr Hu, who was carefully groomed for leadership from a young age, Mr Zeng's political career only started to take off in 1989 when his political patron Mr Jiang became the new party leader in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Mr Zeng was the only political adviser Mr Jiang took to Beijing - a fact that speaks volumes for their closeness and Mr Jiang's trust in his ability.
He helped Mr Jiang oust several strong opponents, including military veterans Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing , former Beijing party boss Chen Xitong and former Politburo Standing Committee member Qiao Shi .
Mr Zeng's impeccable people skills as well as his good relations with other princelings and the military also proved invaluable to Mr Jiang, who struggled to find his feet early on, and Mr Zeng became the party general secretary's right-hand man during the 13-year Jiang era.
In 2000, he helped Mr Jiang formulate the Theory of the Three Represents, which garnered praise but also sparked anger for allowing entrepreneurs to join the party. The reform has since become Mr Jiang's biggest political legacy.
In return, the party leader tried to use every opportunity to promote his young protege. For years, many regarded him as Mr Jiang's alter ego and preferred heir.
But after the 16th party congress five years ago, Mr Zeng surprised everybody by showing great flexibility in co-operating with the new party boss, Mr Hu, who was widely regarded at the time as his chief political rival. Some analysts have suggested Mr Hu and Mr Zeng secretly formed a pact to force Mr Jiang to give up control of the military and go into full retirement.
'Zeng facilitated Jiang Zemin's retirement from his last major post [chairman of the Central Military Committee],' City University political science professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek said.
'He's a very clever politician.'
His sudden alliance with Mr Hu five years ago shocked most China watchers, but Mr Zeng quickly adapted to his new role and become an inseparable part of the president's new leadership lineup.
He was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2002 and played an important, if not decisive, role in helping Mr Hu remove former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu late last year.
Mr Zeng was entrusted with running day-to-day party affairs and was brought onboard to steady the boat and take care of Hong Kong and Macau affairs following a massive rally against the weak administration of Tung Chee-hwa.
But in a way, he has always been his own man. A smart strategist, he built a loyal support base as the head of the party's Central Organisation Department, which put him directly in charge of the promotion of many senior cadres.
His proteges include current Organisation Department head He Guoqiang and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang , who have been elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Political observers predict that Mr Zeng will remain a powerful influence at the highest level for years to come, with his retirement from the top post having nothing to do with his political ability, but merely his age.