Jiang outmanoeuvres Hu again to sway Standing Committee line-up
The 87-year-old former leader has emerged from a series of secret backroom dealings to push his supporters, and his influence, to the forefront
About five years ago, when incumbent and retired Chinese leaders began discussing the line-up of the new Politburo Standing Committee ahead of the Communist Party's 17th national congress, there was intense speculation that President Hu Jintao was manoeuvring to promote his protégé, Li Keqiang, not only as a new member of the committee, but also as his successor.
At that point, Hu's supporters believed that he, after five years in office, had built up enough power and allies to pull off such a move.
That optimism, however, was short-lived. Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor, teamed up with then-vice-president Zeng Qinghong and other retired leaders to orchestrate a series of last-minute backroom dealings in which they succeeded in installing Xi Jinping as the heir apparent.
Now, five years later, as Hu's retirement nears and the 18th party congress is underway to approve a new leadership line-up, there is a sense of déjà vu. Jiang, 86, returned to the forefront of high-level politics in the run-up to the congress, and he appears to have outmanoeuvred Hu again, with Jiang's supporters expected to dominate the new Politburo Standing Committee to be unveiled on Thursday.
When the seven new members walk from behind the curtains into the media limelight in the Great Hall of the People, at least five of them are expected to be Jiang's allies, including Xi.
The line-up is expected to contain several surprises. One is that two of Hu's strong supporters, who were until recently considered strong bets for the commission, will be missing. They are Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong, and Li Yuanchao, the head of the party's powerful Organisation Department, responsible for personnel appointments.
Another surprise is that, as the sequence of the commission line-up indicates the portfolios of members' responsibilities, Wang Qishan, who was long rumoured to become the new executive vice-premier with the No 5 ranking, is now expected to be last in the line-up, indicating he would be responsible for anti-corruption and law and order.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is that Hu will not remain as chairman of the Central Military Commission for another two years, contrary to speculation.
According to party insiders, Hu wants full retirement. Moreover, Hu's bargaining power was weakened after a scandal this year involving his former chief of staff, Ling Jihua.
The high-stakes and high-powered backroom politics have shown how Jiang has skilfully bargained and aligned with other leaders and party elders to continue to consolidate his legacy and exert influence over policies.
How the changes in the proposed line-up of the new Standing Committee have evolved over the past year makes for interesting reading.
From the beginning of this year, when speculation started over the new leadership, observers expected the new Standing Committee to include more of Hu's supporters. After the explosive scandal of Bo Xilai, once a strong contender for a top party post, in March, Hu's power base, the Communist Youth League, was expected to gain the upper hand in filling seats of the Standing Committee. The favourites included Wang, Li and Liu Yandong, a long-time ally of Hu and the only female Politburo member.
The expectations continued to build up until the summer, when the current and retired leaders habitually converged in the resort area of Beidaihe , where they were supposed to reach a consensus over the line-up through rounds of intense horse trading.
However, weeks of meetings failed to produce a list of clear winners. The leaders managed to agree only on reducing the seats on the new Standing Committee from nine to seven, as they believed that a smaller team could reduce wrangling and lead to faster decisions.
Soon after the Beidaihe meetings, an explosive piece of speculation began circulating that former premier, Li Peng and other party elders had strong reservations over the elevation of Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng, for two main reasons. One was that Yu, 67, was too old to carry on for five years, and more importantly, they questioned his suitability for a top post by citing the defection of Yu's brother, Yu Qiangsheng, to the US in the 1980s.
With Yu Zhengsheng tentatively out of the picture, Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan gained better odds in the rumoured line-up.
However, as September came, so did more explosive news: Yu was back in the game, and Li Yuanchao was out - a result of Jiang reportedly undertaking more rounds of bargaining with party elders including Song Ping , Hu's mentor.
Jiang's reasons for fighting furiously to secure a seat for Yu were not immediately clear, but some party insiders believed that Yu's close links with the family of Deng Xiaoping , who handpicked Jiang as the party chief in 1989, may have played a crucial role. In the early 1980s, Yu worked closely with Deng Pufang , Deng's eldest son. Getting Yu a seat appears to be Jiang's payback, and it also serves to ensure that the influence of Deng Xiaoping's family continues at the highest level.
The appointment of Wang Qishan to take charge of anti-corruption tasks and law and order is expected to generate discussion in the months to come. Long seen as a reformist and problem solver, Wang was widely believed to have a better grasp on complex economic issues than the other members of the new Standing Committee, and therefore was expected to take up the job of executive vice-premier with the party's No 5 ranking.
Recently, speculation indicated he would become the second-ranked chairman of the National People's Congress or the fourth-ranked chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. But, to the surprise of many people, he will be in charge of anti-corruption as the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
This has led to speculation that he has been sidelined. But some party insiders who know Wang well think otherwise. For one, Wang himself prefers a job that gives him full authority over a portfolio. Whereas, as vice-premier, he would have to defer to future premier Li Keqiang on major decisions. More importantly, Wang's new job has deeper implications and reflects the careful reasoning of the leadership.
As the leaders have repeatedly warned, official corruption was the most serious threat to the party and the country. The leadership has reached a consensus to step up efforts, particularly by targeting high-ranking officials and their families.
This requires someone with considerable experience and savvy political skills to navigate the minefield. An indiscriminate crackdown could easily lead to fierce political struggles and even the split of the party.
After all, Wang is known as Mr Fix It for good reason.