Retired top leader Jiang Zemin publicly voiced strong support for new president Xi Jinping in a rare move that analysts say is designed to influence an upcoming gathering of the country's key decision-makers.
Jiang gave Xi his full backing during a meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger on July 3.
The conversation was publicised yesterday just as Chinese leaders are about to gather in the beach resort of Beidaihe where they will set the tone on political and economic issues.
"A big country like China with a population of 1.3 billion needs a strong and capable leader," Jiang told the visiting Kissinger.
"Xi Jinping is a very capable and talented state leader," Jiang said. He went on to praise Xi's swift handling of a recent clash in the ethnically-divided region of Xinjiang in which dozens of people were killed.
Jiang told Kissinger: "A country like China will inevitably face this or that kind of problem. These problems themselves are nothing to worry about.
"The important thing is that we take decisive actions to address them. Recently, there were terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Xi Jinping made determined decisions and swiftly put the situation under control.
"We are facing many challenges ahead but I have full confidence in the new leadership. I believe they can solve these problems," he said.
The 87-year-old retired leader also revealed to Kissinger that he had a telephone conversation with Xi recently, in which Xi asked Jiang to pass on his greetings to the former US diplomat and his family. This is a clear message to show that Jiang is in regular contact with Xi.
The conversation was put on the foreign ministry website and reported by Xinhua yesterday. It was then carried by almost all major mainland news websites.
A third of the conversation between Jiang and Kissinger reported by Xinhua focused on Xi.
The agency also quoted Kissinger's comments on Jiang and Xi in great detail. Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao , was not mentioned.
Kissinger stressed how impressed he was by the "courage and determination" shown by Jiang when China faced "difficult times" after 1989.
He then went on to draw a comparison between Jiang and Xi. "I have only met President Xi a few times, but I'm impressed by his determination and courage," Xinhua quoted him as saying.
"The new leadership has already started a series of reforms.
"These reforms may not run smoothly. But I believe he has the will and capability to overcome the problems. Your [Jiang's] comment on the new leader [Xi] further convinced me of that."
The conversation between Jiang and Kissinger on Xi was a departure from the traditional practice. In Chinese politics, retired leaders seldom publicly and directly make remarks on the current leadership. Hu has stayed very low profile since stepping down in March. Analysts noted the report came as the new leaders are faced with unprecedented challenges at home and abroad. Political camps are trying to influence Xi and put pressure on him.
Jiang's speech is apparently designed to support Xi and ensure he stays on the path that Jiang set out some 20 years ago.
Political affairs analyst Zhang Lifan said: "Jiang's latest appearance and the high-profile report are designed to serve as a deliberate reminder to people of the political influence that he still exerts within the leadership."
Zhang, formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, added: "The report is definitely related to the upcoming Beidaihe summit and thus the message is to tell the people that Jiang is behind Xi and the new leadership under him."
Jiang's comments came as China battles a slowdown of the economy, with debates between the left and right heating up.
Top leaders are expected to discuss a crucial reform programme at the third plenum to be held in late autumn. The meeting will also discuss how the party will deal with the case of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai .
Recent reports by state media said the trial of the former Chongqing party chief will begin soon. Analysts said any decision on Bo's case will be contentious within the party.
Zhang said Jiang's comments were also intended as an appeal for unity at a time when the new leadership was facing challenges from within and outside the establishment and China was at a crossroads both economically and politically.
Zhang said: "Xi and his leadership are faced with tremendous political pressure from inside and outside the establishment amid a slowing economy and escalating social tension."
The report said the meeting between the families of Jiang and Kissinger was "family-like" and a "country house-style" gathering.
Jiang was accompanied by his wife and Kissinger was accompanied by his wife, his daughter-in-law, a grandson and a granddaughter. The report likened the meeting to the summit at the Sunnylands estate in California between Xi and his US host Barack Obama last month.
Kissinger recalled his first meeting with Jiang in 1987 when Jiang was Shanghai mayor.
He then met him in 1989 shortly after Jiang took over as party general secretary from ousted predecessor Zhao Ziyang in the aftermath of the crackdown on the nationwide pro-democracy movement on June 4 that year.
Kissinger also praised Xi's handling of Sino-US relations as "impressive", citing Xi's recent summit with Obama in California as evidence of progress.
Analysts said the report showed Jiang still wielded significant political power even though he stepped down from all official posts over a decade ago.
Jiang is a "kingmaker" who played an instrumental role in installing Xi as party leader.
He outmanoeuvred an attempt by his successor Hu Jintao to elevate Li Keqiang - now premier - to the position.
Retired leaders traditionally stay out of the limelight, except for politically symbolic events such as National Day.
But Jiang has periodically found himself in the spotlight since his political exit more than a decade ago, making him the most active retired leader.
Jiang made frequent forays into the public eye in mid-summer last year before the Beidaihe summit that decided the power transition from the fourth generation leaders to the fifth at last year's party congress.
Jiang retired as party general secretary in 2002, state president in 2003 and as commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army in 2004.