Hu likely to go quietly from the scene
As the overseas media focus on the explosive scandal from the ouster of disgraced politician Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife in a murder probe, they seem to pay little attention to a new set of dynamics in mainland politics which may have big implications on the governing of the country for years to come. These concern the delicate relationship between those who will find themselves in charge after this year's leadership succession and their predecessors.
Although it is wrapped in total secrecy, the leadership succession has become more systematised since Deng Xiaoping ended the lifetime appointments of officials in the 1980s. And, more significantly, the upcoming change of power will be the first time that the new leadership is not pre-determined by a paramount leader. That era is gone following the death of Deng. It was he who anointed Jiang Zemin as the top man in the third generation of leaders and chose Hu Jintao for the fourth.
The fifth generation line-up, with Vice-President Xi Jinping set to replace Hu Jintao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang coming in for Premier Wen Jiabao , is expected to be finalised only after intensive horse-trading among various factions in the run-up to the Communist Party's 18th Congress in Beijing in the autumn.
While a more systematised succession has removed arguably the biggest uncertainty threatening the mainland's political stability, it also raises very interesting questions about the influence of the retired leaders over their successors.
Indeed, when Hu retires at the age of 70 in the autumn, he will become the second former top leader still extant following Jiang, who is now 86. That will create a unique situation in the party's history, one in which the new leaders will have to find ways to get along with two former heads of the party and of state, both of whom can exercise their considerable influence through their supporters within the government and the party. How they interact will not only influence the transition of power but also help to shape China's future policies.
It has become an open secret in Beijing's corridors of power that Jiang, despite his full retirement in 2004, still has great influence over China's domestic and foreign policies. It is known among high-ranking officials that he is regularly consulted on major party and government policy initiatives.
And despite the fact that Hu and Xi are leading the efforts to finalise the line-up of the next leadership, Jiang is widely believed to have a powerful say over the choice of the candidates.
Moreover, before Hu and the other mainland leaders decided to sack Bo from the party positions and place him under investigation, Hu is believed to have visited Jiang and sought his consent and support.
In fact, the latest credible speculation has it that Hu wanted to delay Bo's sacking and investigation until after the 18th Congress so as to focus on finalising the succession plans but that Jiang and Xi insisted on making the decision early and prevailed.
Much has been written about how the Bo scandal has thrown the succession into uncertainty, but the fact is that Xi and other upcoming leaders should have toasted the timing of the scandal. Just imagine the scale of the damage to the party leadership if Wang Lijun's attempted defection to the US consulate in Chengdu had come after the Congress, with Bo already a Politburo Standing Committee member. There is no precedent in recent party history for a member of the Politburo Standing Committee being sacked and jailed on corruption charges.
More interestingly, there have long been murmurings within the party hierarchy that Politburo Standing Committee members are beyond the reach of the law.
Now back to Hu. After he retires, will he follow Jiang's example and become another backstage ruler? More specifically, will he follow Jiang's precedent by continuing to serve as chairman of the Central Military Commission for two more years following his retirement as party chief in autumn and as president in March? Jiang's decision to serve as the CMC chairman for two more years drew criticism from analysts at home and abroad for setting a bad precedent in terms of establishing the succession process.
Fortunately, there are suggestions that Hu is inclined to give up his power, including his CMC chairmanship, at the Congress.
According to sources who are familiar with his thinking, Hu is not power-hungry and is expected to live a full retired life with no intention of wielding much influence behind the curtains.
'He is a good leader, a good father, and a good student,' one source said, referring to the fact that, unlike with other top leaders, there has been little speculation regarding any kind of corruption benefitting his children and other family members. Also, he always shows deference to the other party elders, including Jiang.
If his going quietly turns out to be true, that would be good news not only for Xi but also for the party in its efforts to further establish a leadership succession process.