April 4, 2017 10:00 am JST

Old guard still calling the shots in Beijing

Former leaders have final say in decisions on top posts

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, chats with former President Jiang Zemin beside Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, right, as they wait for a military parade to begin in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

TOKYO -- Former Politburo Standing Committee member Song Ping looks decidedly sprightly, considering he becomes a centenarian this month.

The elder statesman met with a charity executive in the island province of Hainan off the southern tip of China in February, where he asserted to those gathered that education is the key for rural areas to escape poverty.

In the 1980s, Song was the head of the Gansu provincial government deep in the country's interior. It was at that point that he played a pivotal role in shaping his country's future.

He is said to have been the deciding factor in catapulting the careers of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao toward the presidency and premiership.

It is believed Song's backing was also key to Xi Jinping's ascent to the post of Communist Party general secretary when officials were split on who to elect ahead of a National Congress a decade ago. The leaders are said to have turned to the influential elder statesman for the final word on whether to vote for Xi, now president, or Li Keqiang, the current premier.

Final say

Age does not seem to be much of an issue for Song. He said retired comrades can continue charity activities at least until 80, as long as they are healthy, according to the executive. Beijing-affiliated media reported on the meeting, using a picture of an aged, yet sanguine, Song, hinting at support for Xi's desire to stay in power beyond what is conventional.

Looking back, communist China's first leader Mao Zedong clung on to power until his death, just as Chinese emperors had done. Second-generation leader Deng Xiaoping then introduced the practice of retirement, but party elders have continued to exert strong influence over politics nonetheless and have occasionally had the final say in leadership decisions.

Former members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- the country's top decision-making body -- have the privilege of suggesting candidates for important positions, according to journalist Li Datong, who formerly served as editor at the China Youth Daily.

Respect for one's elders is evident in many aspects of Chinese society today. At a Beijing book store, for example, one finds biographies and books of quotes of powerful politicians like Mao and Deng displayed near the entrance.

The latest tome on the shelf is a collection of quotes from Hu published in September. When the book came out, the state-run Xinhua News Agency ran a commentary praising Hu for taking socialism a step further. And this for the man whose influence is said to be on the decline, especially after the downfall of a close aide.

There is even a growing sense of nostalgia for the politics of the old days as President Xi has solidified his position. Just this March, the Communist Party confirmed him as "core" leader, a designation that concentrates more power in his hands.

Stifling leader

Former President Jiang Zemin has not been seen in public since attending a military parade in Beijing in September 2015. Many people began worrying about his health, and on his 90th birthday on Aug. 17, 2016, many took to the internet to wish him well. The line "give a second to the elder" started trending, the idea being that if he could receive one second of life from each and every person in the country, he would live to an even grander old age.

Jiang's sister, Jiang Zehui, recently insisted he was in perfect health.

Many Chinese talk fondly about the good old days and the country's elder statesmen, and not a small number are increasingly feeling stifled by the current state of affairs under Xi, said a Chinese researcher.

The researcher expressed concern at the excessive control Xi has established, but said the presence of the older generation acts as an important counterbalance, for now at least.

(Nikkei)

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