Former president Jiang Zemin and other party veterans returned to centre stage at the Great Hall of the People yesterday, demonstrating their continued power to shape the country's future.
The 86-year-old retired party chief, who was rumoured to be near death last year, walked slowly to the stage with the help of an aide immediately behind his successor, Hu Jintao . Jiang mingled with his comrades and appeared in good spirits even before the repeated mention of his name in Hu's 90-minute speech.
Jiang took a central seat next to Hu in the first row, one strictly reserved for the presidium's 41 Standing Committee members. All were there except the 96-year-old Wan Li and the 88-year-old Qiao Shi who have been battling failing health for years. Wan also missed the last party congress five years ago.
The all-important first row looked congested, with many party elders making rare appearances. Their mere presence was seen as an assertion of their influence over China's once-in-a-decade leadership change. Jiang, in particular, has been seen as a reemergent force in the run-up to the party congress.
Zeng Qinghong , a former vice-president and close ally to Jiang, looked the picture of health, sporting a sleek, black pompadour at the age of 73.
A few spots away sat Hu's 96-year-old mentor Song Ping , energetically taking notes through the speech.
Some of the party's younger rising stars, like Sun Zhengcai and Zhou Qiang , the party bosses of Jilin and Hunan provinces, respectively, took careful notes. By comparison, Hu Chunhua , the party chief of Inner Mongolia , and Li Zhanshu , newly appointed director of the General Office of the party's Central Committee, appeared relaxed.
Jiang also looked at ease, leaning back in his chair through most of the session.
He did not appear to read Hu's report and checked his watch more than once, the first time just 20 minutes into Hu's address.
After the long session, three aides helped the ageing leader rise from his chair. Jiang nonetheless made a courteous effort to make way for Deng Pufang , the wheelchair-bound son of the late paramount leader and market reformer Deng Xiaoping .
Last summer, reports of Jiang's death ran wild after his failure to appear a high-profile event to mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party's founding. He later appeared with Hu at another ceremonial event to quash the speculation.
Although many had written Jiang off as a figure of diminished political importance, he has made a comeback this year. Many analysts say he has been able to out-flank Hu to shape a new lineup for the Politburo's supreme Standing Committee.
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk