Long time no see: elder statesmen make rare public appearance at China’s top table

Two former presidents and congress’s eldest delegate 102-year-old Song Ping shown plenty of respect at opening ceremony

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 8:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 11:20pm

Whatever power struggles may or may not be going on behind the scenes of China’s party congress, none of the delegates appeared to have lost their respect for their elders, at least not in front of the television cameras.

As President Xi Jinping appeared from behind the curtain that had been shielding the conclave’s decision-making presidium at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday, it was clear he was opting for a gentle walking pace so as not to pull too far ahead of the two men immediately behind him – 91-year-old Jiang Zemin and 75-year-old Hu Jintao, his two immediate predecessors.

The two elder statesmen were escorted by attentive aides.

Jiang appeared to be in fine fettle as he entered the auditorium for the opening ceremony. His mere appearance at the most important political event in China for the past five years was enough for him to steal the show, bearing in mind he had been reported to be in poor health before the start of the event. More than once in recent years he has been reported to have died.

The road ahead for China – in Xi Jinping’s words

The former leader’s advancing age did catch up with him from time to time, however. He was spotted dozing on one occasion and relied on an oversized magnifying glass to read his copy of the party’s work report.

He also appeared a little bored at times during Xi’s speech, checking his watch 10 times over the course of the 3½-hour oration, which was more than twice as long as Hu took to deliver his report on behalf of the Politburo five years ago.

At the end of the lengthy address, which ended with Xi referring once more to the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” the hall was filled with applause from the assembled crowd.

When the president got back to his seat, Hu stood up to shake his hand. The two were later seen chatting, and though it was not possible to hear what they were saying, Hu clearly indicated to his watch, perhaps suggesting that Xi’s oration was a little longer than absolutely necessary.

Xi shook hands with both Jiang and Hu twice before the end of the meeting, which is set to run until Tuesday.

Former Premier Wen Jiabao, the immediate predecessor to incumbent Li Keqiang, also showed his respect for his elders at Wednesday’s opening event. Despite being 75 himself, Wen stood up and pulled out a chair for the congress’s eldest delegate, 102-year-old Song Ping, on his return from a “comfort break” midway through the marathon meeting.

Former Premier Zhu Rongji, a long-time favourite with the public, was also there. As one of the presidium’s elder members he took his position alongside his fellow elite, though at 89, and apparently suffering from a cough, he needed help getting up from his seat at the end of the proceedings.

Xi Jinping sets the agenda for China’s next five years

Among the other retired leaders on show at the Great Hall of the People were former Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, and former political advisers Li Ruihuan and Jia Qinglin, all three of whom appeared full of vim and vigour.

The same could not be said for Luo Gan, the 82-year-old former top law enforcer, who failed to attend the opening ceremony despite being named as one of the 42 members of the presidium’s standing committee.