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Xi and Jiang smile for the crowd

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

BEIJING -- The constellation Orion could be seen twinkling in the early hours of Sept. 3, thanks to a temporary shutdown of factories in and around the Chinese capital. The shutdown order was meant to clear the city's cloud of air pollution and ensure blue skies during the day's massive military parade.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. are carried by military vehicles on Sept. 3. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

     The parade was in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of China's victory in "the war of resistance against Japanese aggression" as well as "the world anti-fascist war."

15 elders in attendance

At 10 a.m. that day, China's current leaders, including President Xi Jinping, and elders from earlier generations stood in a row on the Tiananmen rostrum, the strong sun beating down on them.

     Xi is also the top leader of the Communist Party and the country's military.

     Including his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, all but one of 16 elders who once served as members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body, were present at the military extravaganza.

President Xi Jinping, left, chats with former President Jiang Zemin before the start of the parade. Former President Hu Jintao stands to the right. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

     It was the first time in a year for Jiang to appear at an official event. The only elder who did not show up was Zhou Yongkang, a key rival to Xi and an influential member of the Jiang's group.

     Zhou, a victim to Xi's sweeping anti-corruption campaign, in June was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of bribery and other crimes.

     Xi has wielded his anti-corruption campaign against his political foes since coming to power as the Communist Party's general secretary in 2012. He became the country's president in the spring of 2013.

     In China, even after a new president takes office, his predecessor continues to wield strong influence, thanks to the many senior officials he put in place at the Communist Party, military and government.

     This is just like ancient Japan's insei, or rule by retired emperor, system.

     President Xi has been fighting desperately to contain the inseilike power of Jiang and others. But he has been doing so behind-the-scenes and within the Communist Party.

     Xi and Jiang exchange words -- even smiles -- in public. They actually did so Sept. 3, during the military parade.

     Last year, after a long interval out of the public eye and amid rumors of ill health, Jiang appeared at a concert, sitting next to Xi. His reappearance came at the end of September 2014, ahead of National Day. It also followed the Chinese authorities' end-of-July announcement of a clampdown on Zhou.

     In August of that year, China's current leaders and elders from previous generations held their annual summer conclave in Beidaihe, Hebei Province, to informally discuss important issues.

     Behind closed doors, Jiang and the other elders reluctantly accepted the crackdown on Zhou. But the power struggle between Xi and Jiang continued.

     Xi's regime made careful preparations to make the military parade a one-man show.

     Many Chinese were glued to their television sets during the spectacle, watching the live feed from state-run, China Central Television (CCTV). But they never realized Jiang was on Xi's immediate left.

Former presidents Jiang Zemin, left, and Hu Jintao are shown on a huge screen in front of Tiananmen Square during a big military parade.

     CCTV's cameras never showed the two together.

     "I saw Lao Jiang (Jiang Zemin) appear," one Beijing resident said. "But I did not know he was next to Xi Dada (Xi Jinping)."

     One person familiar with the matter said Xi and Jiang were never shown together as a result of "press manipulation made out of consideration to the feud between Xi and Jiang."

     Jiang is not popular among the general public. Many Chinese say it is because of Jiang that so many people close to him seem to swim in corruption.

     Xi has vowed to crack down on both "tigers and flies" -- powerful leaders and low-level officials -- in his anti-corruption campaign. His tiger hunt has earned him strong public support.

     Any TV image showing Xi, who is seen by many Chinese as "a champion of justice," and Jiang, widely seen as a villain, chatting together could put a damper on Xi's popularity.

     Yet the feud has drawn international attention as a symbol of China's unstable politics. And the fact that Xi and Jiang stood next to each other -- and seemed to amiably chat -- is newsworthy.

     This is why Chinese media outlets that cater to overseas Chinese and foreigners distributed a photo of Xi and Jiang chatting, with Hu on their left. The photo was also used by Chinese media outlets in Hong Kong that are effectively under the jurisdiction of the Communist Party's publicity department.

     A big question that Jiang's appearance put on many lips regards the 89-year-old's health.

     Is he OK?

     Jiang needed help before he took his seat on the Tiananmen rostrum and also when he walked down stairs. Otherwise, he looked to be in good shape for a man his age.

     Jiang also made a splash by giving a thumbs-up to Hu, on his immediate left.

     As for the 72-year-old Hu, it would be safe to say he betrayed no emotion the whole time. Footage of Hu's left fingertips shaking slightly without interruption, however, went viral online. A camera captured the movement by deliberately zooming in on Hu's fingers.

     The footage sparked a torrent of speculation. "Hu and Jiang are on bad terms with each other," one online post says. "It (the slight shaking of Hu's left fingertips) was an expression of Hu's anger, as he couldn't put up with the behavior of Jiang right next to him."

     According to another's post, Hu's left fingertips shook slightly, "possibly because he is dissatisfied with Xi, who drove Ling Jihua, Hu's close aide, out of office." Ling in July was stripped of his Communist Party membership.

     Aside from these explanations, it is a good guess that Hu has some health problems. There is a rumor that he is suffering from Parkinson's disease.

     In the 2012 leadership succession, Hu transferred power to Xi, retiring from all official posts, including chairman of the Central Military Commission.

     Jiang, Hu's immediate predecessor, played it differently. He retained the helm of the military as chairman of the Central Military Commission for a while, even after retiring as Chinese president and as the Communist Party's general secretary.

     This way, Jiang could exercise some powerful insei, which put Hu in a difficult spot. The experience persuaded Hu -- once head of the Communist Youth League, a ruling party organization with nearly 90 million members -- to try to stay quiet about important issues after he himself retired.

     But when it comes to top leadership changes at the Communist Party's next national congress, in 2017, Hu wants a voice: He would like to recommend some new members for the Politburo Standing Committee. High on his list is Hu Chunhua.

     But if Hu Jintao is in poor health, his political influence will wane. Health issues have had the same effect on many past Chinese elders.

     The Communist Youth League faction, which comprises former officials of the youth organization, and the so-called Princeling faction are the Communist Party's two most powerful blocs. Princelings are the children of prominent and influential senior party officials.

     Hu Chunhua, the 52-year-old Communist Party secretary in Guangdong Province, is a promising member of the Communist Youth League faction.

     Among the other elders present at the military parade were: former Vice President Zeng Qinghong, 76; former Premier Li Peng, 86; and former Premier Zhu Rongji, 86.

     Earlier this year, the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the ruling party's top anti-graft body, published an article criticizing Yikuang, titled Prince Qing of the First Rank.

     The Qing dynasty noble became China's first prime minister. He was born in 1838 and died in 1917. He and Zeng Qinghong have the same Chinese character, Qing, in their names.

     The article sparked rumors that Zeng, a close aide to Jiang, might be the next target in Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Zeng could be seen moving around briskly behind the emotionless Hu Jintao during the military parade, demonstrating his good health.

     Li Peng, whose family wields strong influence in the electric power industry, was also seen on the Tiananmen rostrum. Like President Xi, Zeng and Li are both influential members of the Princeling faction.

     Former Premier Zhu Rongji, who is held in high regard for reforming state-owned companies and successfully carrying out other measures while in office, looked somewhat frail during the parade.

     At one point, Zhu's secretary, right beside him, gestured as if to prompt Zhu to put his hands on the railing of the rostrum. The secretary was urging Zhu to hold on to the railing for support, fearing that the old man might grow exhausted and collapse were he to stand in the strong sun for too long.

     After hesitating for a moment, Zhu followed his secretary's lead.

President Xi Jinping is about to review troops during the parade. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

98-year-old elder

Song Ping also made a rare public appearance during the military parade. The 98-year-old was the oldest among the elders attending the event. Like President Xi, Song was dressed in a Mao suit.

     Song won the confidence of former supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He saw Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as potential future leaders and later helped them join the Politburo Standing Committee. Wen eventually served as premier.

     Song also played a key behind-the-scenes role in Xi's sudden emergence in 2007 as the most likely candidate to take over from Hu as China's supreme leader.

     At the time, Li Keqiang, the current Chinese premier who belongs to the Communist Youth League faction, was initially seen as the most likely candidate to take the country's helm. But many elders objected.

     Recalling what happened at the time, a Communist Party source familiar with the matter said, "Song Ping strongly recommended Xi Jinping [as China's future supreme leader] and tried to secure an agreement among the elders. Song was one of the key men."

     Song was on good terms with Xi Zhongxun, Xi's late father who once served as the country's vice premier. If Song is a good judge of people, he may have a say in top leadership changes at the 2017 national congress.

     Now that Xi has taken control of the military, he must be thinking that he should choose his successor. But if Xi is to uphold the Communist Party's traditions, he will not be able to ignore the opinions of the 15 elders who appeared with him on the Tiananmen rostrum.

     This is why the Beidaihe meeting draws attention every year. Not all of the 15 elders were present at this summer's seaside gathering. But all of them have conveyed their views to Xi in one way or another.

     The military parade, the economy and important upcoming personnel changes were all on the agenda at this year's Beidaihe meeting. Xi's tug of war with China's elders, including Jiang Zemin, will continue.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a winner of the prestigious Vaughn-Ueda prize for international journalism. He joined The Nikkei in 1987 and is a former chief of The Nikkei's China Headquarters. This column is part of weekly series investigating what is happening at the center of President Xi Jinping's administration.

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