China's Grand Old Men step into limelight
Keith Zhai in Beijing
The first row of the presidium is a rare showcase of the Grand Old Men of Chinese politics.
Here, at the Great Hall of the People, all retired party leaders – except the 96-year-old Wan Li and the 88-year-old Qiao Shi – and previous standing committee members were on stage. Some of them even appeared younger and better-looking than the incumbent leaders.
With the amount of vigour he was oozing as he sat at centre stage today, God only knows why he chose to step down from the standing committee five years ago. He appeared much healthier than Wu Bangguo, the current top legislature and No 2 in the standing committee, who is two years younger but gives off a sickly impression.
But it was octogenarian Jiang Zemin who outshone everybody on the opening day of the Communist Party’s most important gathering in a decade.
The 86-year-old former party chief, who was rumoured to be near death last year, was mingling on the stage with his former friends and foes, apparently already in a good mood even before hearing his successor, Hu Jintao, mention him a number of times in the 90-minute speech.
The grand old man even made the effort to courteously give way to Deng Pufang, the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s disabled son who was sitting in a wheelchair, after the speech.
In contrast, not many of the incoming leaders have shown much of character: neither Xi Jinping, who is replacing Hu as party chief in a couple of days, nor Li Keqiang, the country’s next premier, appeared very social. Xi was even looking a bit nonchalant with his purple tie slightly askew.