Published November 09, 2012
BEIJING – When China's ranking communists file into the Great Hall of the People, you can spot the invited guests, the retired but still-influential men in their 70s, 80s and even 90s: Most of them no longer dye their hair the requisite jet black of Beijing's working leaders.
These men typically have no official posts anymore but continue to make their preferences known. They work behind the scenes to promote their proteges and allies to top posts on the party's Politburo.
Foremost among them is ex-President Jiang Zemin, who watched Thursday's opening of a pivotal Communist Party congress through enormous glasses. An aide helped him to his seat next to outgoing President Hu Jintao.
In the off-stage machinations to stack the lineup of China's new leadership to be announced late next week, these old-timers are hard at work.
"The role of the elders in the informal selection of Politburo members continues to be crucial," said Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at the University of Brussels. "Especially in times of domestic stress, I expect this clan politics to make it more difficult to reform."
Among those front and center at this week's congress was 95-year-old veteran revolutionary and communist kingmaker Song Ping, on whose recommendation Hu had been elevated to the Politburo standing committee at the remarkably young age of 49.
Song, who wore a high-collared Mao suit, frequently dozed off during Thursday's proceedings.
The clout of Song and Jiang reflects the party's traditional deference to its elders, but also its lack of transparency and failure to institutionalize its succession processes through open elections or other steps. The power of the elders, a largely conservative group, is also seen as inhibiting reforms that might erode their influence or harm their economic interests in the state-controlled economy.
Ensuring the promotion of proteges burnishes the credentials of retired leaders, ensures them some say in affairs of state, and — perhaps most importantly — protects them and their families from being investigated over corruption or other improprieties committed while in office.
The practice of elders exercising influence behind the scenes was established by Deng Xiaoping, who remained paramount leader even after relinquishing his official titles.
In one of the most famous instances, Bo Yibo, one of the party's "eight immortals," intervened in 1998 to oust a Jiang rival, Qiao Shi. In return, Jiang for a while became the protector of Bo's son, Bo Xilai, paying back the favor by making him governor of the northeastern province of Liaoning.
Bo Xilai rose to the Politburo but suffered one of the most spectacular falls in Chinese politics this spring thanks to a scandal centered on his wife's involvement in the murder of a British businessman. Bo might have fared differently if Bo Yibo had not died five years ago.
Jiang, who oversaw a four-fold expansion of the economy, the reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, and the country's entry into the World Trade Organization, stepped down as party leader in 2002, although he led the commission that controls the armed forces for another two years.
In addition to backing Xi, Jiang is seen as a patron of as many as four leading candidates for the next Politburo Standing Committee to be made public next Thursday, which could leave him with the bulk of the influence on that inner sanctum of power.
Jiang's picks reflect his values of cautious economic reform matched with the party's overwhelming dominance of political life. But one area where he may have lost his influence is over the military, where recent top appointments seem to reflect preferences of Hu, who is stepping aside as party leader at the congress and as president next spring.
As he leaves office, Hu, 69, will himself be moving into the elder role.
Though his decade as president and party leader has been largely unremarkable, he's solidified his standing through his network of contacts dating from the 1980s, when he headed the China Youth League, which grooms university students for party positions.
In addition to Hu's top protege and incoming premier Li Keqiang, only one other prospective Standing Committee member is closely associated with the Youth League faction. However, Hu has ensured that allies occupy leading positions at provincial levels, guaranteeing his influence for years to come.
Hu also consolidated control over military appointments, especially members of the Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces. He may hold onto the panel's chairmanship after stepping down as party chief, as Jiang did.
There has been little public outcry against the power of the elders: The tendency to cherish consensus and stability seems to trump any call for their influence to be curbed.
That could change: In his address Thursday, Hu himself urged greater transparency within party affairs based on "equality and democratic principle."
Yet, until the party moves on such reforms, the enduring influence of the elders will perpetuate factionalism.
"A leadership based on personal patronage and divided loyalty at the highest level will only create obsequious bureaucrats and potentially greater political instability," said U.S. Naval Academy China analyst Yu Maochun.
"Factionalism and purges will inexorably arise, and that has proven catastrophic for China," Yu said.