Even as the Communist Party Congress concludes its sweeping leadership transition later this week, the question of whether the departing president, Hu Jintao, will keep his powerful post as head of the military looms as a major unresolved issue, and one of deepest intrigue.
Mr. Hu is scheduled to cede the chairmanship of the ruling party to Vice President Xi Jinping at the end of the congress. But will he cling to a position of considerable influence as the civilian military chief for two more years, and delay the ascension of Mr. Xi to that post? Or will Mr. Hu depart the scene completely?
Competing possibilities have been floated in recent days, with the preponderant view being that Mr. Hu, unlike his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping, will completely retire rather than stay on as the top overseer of military affairs. That would give Mr. Xi greater influence over the military and a firmer grip on power from the start.
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But some insiders still suggest that Mr. Hu, who appears to have lost out to Mr. Jiang, 86, in shaping the new lineup for the top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, will nonetheless still hold on to the military post for two more years.
Whatever the outcome, the position, known as chairman of the Central Military Commission, is likely to be the last piece of leverage for Mr. Hu as top party officials tussle down to the wire over promotions of protégés and protection of long-held interests. The bargaining over whether Mr. Hu stays or goes is almost certainly fierce, party insiders said Monday.
Mr. Hu could be arguing that if he is to leave the military post then one of his protégés should be added to the Standing Committee, where five of the projected seven seats are believed to have been allotted to Mr. Jiang's allies. Though considered unlikely, that suggests that the makeup of the Standing Committee could change at the last minute, before the formal announcement expected Thursday.
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Some political insiders also pLi Keqiang Prepares to Become Chinese Premieroint out that Mr. Hu has promoted some of his military allies to senior posts recently, so he can leave confident that he can exercise his influence through them.
A political commentator in Beijing, Chen Ziming, who is following the congress closely, said he believed that Mr. Hu would retire from the commission, although he had not heard a definitive decision.
"I don't think that Hu Jintao is so full of ambition that he wants to stay on and exert control over Xi Jinping," Mr. Chen said, "and I don't think he will have the power to do that."
Last week, a former Chinese official and businessman agreed that Mr. Hu was likely to step down from the commission, and that he would do so in the interests of modernization of the military in a new era of competition with the United States.
For Mr. Hu to hand the reins of the military to Mr. Xi "accords with Hu's and other leaders' interest in institutional progress," the former official said. "The former practice of waiting for a period before stepping down was a bad habit that created problems."
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There are also conflicting notions of how the competition for influence between Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang could affect Mr. Hu's role after the congress. One supporter of Mr. Hu's said Mr. Jiang, despite what appears to be his antipathy to Mr. Hu, was leaning heavily on his successor to stay on as military chairman, even though Mr. Hu did not want to.
According to this version, proffered by a prominent Chinese businessman with strong ties to Mr. Hu, Mr. Jiang was suggesting that Mr. Hu stay in the top military post so that Mr. Jiang would "look good in the history books."
Mr. Jiang retired as party secretary in November 2002 and stepped down as state president the next March. But he remained the chief of the military until late 2004, causing undercurrents of grumbling, until Mr. Hu finally took over the commission.
Earlier, Deng Xiaoping stayed on as military chief for two more years after giving up his remaining civilian titles in 1987, a position that allowed him to order the army to crack down on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But unlike Mr. Jiang or Mr. Hu, Mr. Deng had long exercised sweeping authority without holding official titles like party chief or president, so his decision to keep the military post was not as much of a conspicuous effort to retain power in retirement.
"Hu as a person has high integrity, and he doesn't want to stay on," the Hu supporter said.
Others have said Mr. Hu will stay on because he wants to. The former Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who remains close to the inner leadership in Beijing, said last month in a CNN interview that Mr. Hu would remain as chairman of the commission "for some time."
But a senior diplomat in Beijing said he understood that Mr. Hu would probably leave, giving Mr. Xi, who has the strong backing of Mr. Jiang, more maneuvering room to set the nation's agenda as the first among equals in China's collective leadership. "I'm hearing the Shanghai crowd has won a decisive victory," the diplomat said about Mr. Jiang and his supporters. "And that includes Hu out of the C.M.C." Shanghai was Mr. Jiang's power base before he ascended to the country's top leadership posts.
Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting.