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Jiang still pulls the strings.

Long after retirement, Jiang Zemin continues to exert his influence

The former party chief may have retired a decade ago, but his lingering influence makes him one of the most powerful men in China

Retired state leaders traditionally shun
public appearances - and making headlines - apart from on special occasions such as National Day. However, former president Jiang Zemin has periodically found himself in the limelight since his gradual political exit nearly a decade ago, making him the most active retired leader in this dynastic-style, communist-ruled nation.

Jiang retired as Communist Party secretary general in 2002 and as commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army in 2004. Yet the octogenarian has been in the public eye at least four times in the past two months; he wrote a preface for a history textbook and was the subject of a lengthy article that hailed his role in leading "the party and nation to sail on a historic wave".

While his absence from the public stage last year prompted rumours that Jiang was seriously ill or had even died, the recent spate of appearances is being seen as a deliberate reminder to people of the political influence that Jiang and his faction still exert within the leadership.

"Jiang's frequent public appearances in the country's media are designed to send strong signals that the former leader still wants his say in policymaking and personnel ahead of the 18th National Party Congress," said Zhang Lifan, a political affairs commentator.

As the party prepares for the once-in-a-decade transition of leaders, from the fourth generation to the fifth, at this autumn's party congress, there are growing signs of an intense power struggle. The abrupt sacking of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his suspension from the Politburo in April only added fuel to this power struggle.

There has been much speculation that Jiang's influence may eclipse that of current general secretary Hu Jintao in the new leadership line-up , as members of Jiang's faction and their allies seem to be gaining an upper hand in the contest for seats on the next Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top power echelon.

Dr Cheng Li, director of research at the John Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the single most important factor in the selection of the standing committee was "patron-client ties". Li said that the current leadership would consult retired leaders, particularly Jiang, on the leadership line-up.

Li characterised the leadership today as "one party, two coalitions". One coalition, the so-called Shanghai faction that also includes the princelings (children of revolutionary leaders), is led by Jiang's protégés. The other coalition consists primarily of former officials from the Chinese Communist Youth League and is led by Hu. "The rivals fight with each other over power, influence, and policy initiatives," Li said.

There are suggestions the next standing committee will have only seven members, down from nine at present. Top contenders for those posts include Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng, vice-premier and Chongqing party chief Zhang Dejiang and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan; all three come either from the Shanghai faction or are princelings - Jiang's power base.

"Jiang's Shanghai faction allied with the princelings to rival the populist group led by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao after what they saw as the failures of governance in the current administration," said Zhang Lifan, who was a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of the nation's top think tanks.

Analysts see Jiang as the most influential retired leader, who can wield power through his cronies within the hierarchy.

"Jiang's faction still dominates the current Politburo and its standing committee," said Lin Wen-cheng, director of National Sun Yat-sen University's Institute of Mainland China Studies.

When Jiang retired in 2002 from his party position, the most powerful job in China, he packed the 25-member decision-making Politburo and its nine-member standing committee with his own supporters.

Lin pointed out that seven out of the nine standing committee members at the 16th Party Congress were Jiang's men. Hu and Wen were the exceptions.

Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said that Jiang was able to continue wielding power after stepping down as party leader by retaining his position on the Central Military Commission for another 2-1/2 years.

"By staying on at the Central Military Commission, he continued to have a place to assert his authority for a couple of years after formally stepping down," Tsang said. "Above all, he sent a powerful signal that he was still there, and thus was able to continue to assert his influence."

Tsang admitted, though, that Jiang's influence of late was not comparable to what it was a decade ago.

Lin said Jiang had maintained his influence up to 2007 through another protégé, Zeng Qinghong, then vice-president and head of the secretariat of the Central Committee's, the party's nerve centre. Before Zeng stepped down in 2007, he too helped place Jiang's men in decision-making bodies.

Lin pointed the that Zeng was instrumental in the promotion of Xi Jinping as vice-president and heir-apparent at the 17th party congress in 2007, defeating Hu's favourite candidate and close ally, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.

At the 17th congress, at least five men in the Politburo Standing Committee were considered to be Jiang's men. They were legislator Wu Bangguo, top political adviser Jia Qinglin, propaganda chief Li Changchun, security chief Zhou Yongkang and the likely future president and party general secretary, Xi, Lin said.

On several high-profile occasions in recent years, such as the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics in 2008, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 2009, and ceremonies marking the centenary of the 1911 revolution and the 90th birthday of the party last year, Jiang even stole the limelight from Hu.

"Jiang wants to remind the people that he will continue to exert his influence at least until the conclusion of 18th Party Congress," Zhang Lifan said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Jiang still pulls the strings