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China ex-leader Jiang a new force behind scenes
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Nov 13, 2012

China's communist congress set to wrap up
Beijing (AFP) Nov 14, 2012 - China's Communist Party will on Wednesday close a congress tasked with choosing a new circle of leaders who face major economic challenges and growing scrutiny from an increasingly demanding population.

The congress is by far China's most important political event as it chooses who leads the party and nation, and this year's gathering is expected to see Vice President Xi Jinping selected as China's chief for the next decade.

The gathering of more than 2,200 ruling party delegates from around the country, held at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, will close before midday after selecting a new central committee of 200 or so party leaders.

On Thursday, that committee will meet to determine still higher bodies culminating in China's most powerful governing circle, the Politburo Standing Committee, which currently has nine members and which Xi looks set to lead.

Xi's ascension has been expected since 2007, when he was given a position on the standing committee. That indicated his status as heir apparent to current President Hu Jintao, who officially relinquishes party control this week.

Under the party's Leninist structure, top leadership posts are decided in back-room political deals between factions that break down largely on regional and patronage lines but lack sharp policy differences -- at least in public.

Thursday's new top circle is also expected to include a prominent post on the committee for current Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

Xi is expected to complete his takeover in March when China's rubber-stamp legislature officially names him the nation's president, while Li is strongly believed destined for the premiership, replacing incumbent Wen Jiabao.

They are expected to serve two five-year terms.

They will take over at an uncertain time, when China's powerhouse economy is suffering a rare slowdown, undercutting the party's key claim to legitimacy -- continually improving the livelihoods of the country's 1.3 billion people.

Localised unrest is widespread in China, typically sparked by public anger over corruption, government abuses or the myriad manifestations of anger from millions left out the country's newfound prosperity.

Anti-Chinese unrest in ethnic Tibetan areas also has flared with a spate of self-immolation protests over the past week.

In a speech opening the congress last Thursday, Hu warned the party, in power since 1949, must address festering problems of corruption, environmental degradation, and calls for more political freedoms.

Widespread graft in particular, could prove "fatal" to the party, he said.

Beijing also employs a huge censorship apparatus to snuff out -- not always successfully -- anger at the government expressed by hundreds of millions of users of bustling social media sites.

The run-up to this year's congress was further unsettled by the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a former rising political star whose ambitions were torpedoed this year when his wife was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman.

Battening down for the congress, authorities have flooded central Beijing with security, and placed hundreds of activists under house arrest, rights groups say.

He was wrongly reported dead last year, and his political influence was said to have faded as a younger generation assumed control of China, but former President Jiang Zemin has made a surprise comeback.

As the Communist Party readies to unveil its new leadership line-up on Thursday, Jiang's fingerprints -- or at least those of the faction for which he serves as an eminence grise -- seem increasingly clear on the transition.

Jiang entered Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People for the opening of the party's congress last week directly behind outgoing general secretary Hu Jintao and sat next to him, dozing intermittently.

Analysts say the 86-year-old Jiang's prominence at the congress reflects his continued impact on behind-the-scenes negotiations to pick China's next crop of top leaders.

Jiang loyalists, they add, are likely to make up the core of China's most senior decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, to be headed by current Vice President Xi Jinping who is widely viewed as a consensus figure.

Observers associate Jiang, who guided China into the World Trade Organization and allowed entrepreneurs into the party for the first time, with more business-friendly, free-market economic policies.

Hu's camp is said to favour a greater role for the state in the economy, and emphasises fairer distribution as well as economic growth.

But the differences are apparently more personal than political.

"Jiang plays the role of kingmaker," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the University of Hong Kong who wrote a biography of Jiang. "He has been very effective in this factional struggle."

The role of geriatric party figures in the secret discussions which determine China's leadership is played down by the Communist party, which says that its leaders are picked during the congress through elections by delegates.

Zhang Chunxian, the party chief of the restive western province of Xinjiang, who is reportedly an ally of Jiang, refused to comment when asked about the ex-president's continued influence by an AFP reporter.

"That sounds like gossip... I don't know where you get your information from," he said, laughing dismissively.

Jiang, who held the Communist party's top post from 1989-2002, was pronounced dead by a Hong Kong TV station in 2011 after a period of illness, prompting furious speculation.

But a healthy-looking Jiang has made several high-profile appearances this year, in what analysts see as an attempt to display his political credentials ahead of the congress -- where he sported a shock of nut-brown dyed hair.

His leverage on party negotiations was boosted by a recent scandal involving Hu's close political ally Ling Jihua, who according to reports attempted to cover up a Ferrari crash that killed his son, who had two young women in the vehicle.

But Jiang's motivation for reasserting his influence is likely to be more about protecting family interests than promoting a political agenda, analysts said.

"In the run up to the congress Jiang wants more of his proteges to be promoted to ensure his legacy and protect his two children," Lam said.

Jiang's son Jiang Mianheng, the high-profile head of an investment firm, has brokered deals with foreign firms including Microsoft and Nokia. His younger son is the director of a research centre.

"Because his two sons are doing a lot of business, they might be exposed to allegations of corruption," Lam said. "Jiang wants to make sure he can protect them from that."

Jiang has jockeyed into place several allies on the Politburo Standing Committee, leaving outgoing Hu with fewer loyalist on the body.

"In terms of people who will unquestioningly do Hu's bidding there's only one: Li Keqiang," Lam said, referring to the man expected to become China's new premier.

But Hu has ensured that his own loosely connected group of allies will have long term influence, by promoting his associates into top posts in the military and as regional party chiefs.

"I suspect Jiang's influence might not last beyond the Congress. He is trying to pull some strings but is not a powerful figure," said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Britain's University of Nottingham.

Jiang's power is also threatened by continuing doubts about his health, and a likely push by Xi to assert himself once he assumes the top party post, observers say.


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