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Ex-President of China, Said to Be Ill, Appears in Beijing

Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield

Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese president who was said to have fallen gravely ill in July, appeared at a ceremony in Beijing on Sunday, fanning speculation about his health and the likelihood that he might play a role in power struggles accompanying the long-planned shift in the top leadership next year.

Chinese president Hu jintao  stands with former president Jiang Zemin at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 9, 2011.
AFP | Getty Images

A visibly frail Mr. Jiang, 85, was seen on state television on Sunday morning standing with other Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People and singing along with others the national anthem to honor the 100th anniversary of the revolution that ended the Qing Dynasty. One photograph showed Mr. Jiang, dressed in a dark suit and red tie and wearing square-rimmed glasses, waving as he took a seat.

Reports of Mr. Jiang’s failing health were in the Hong Kong news media on July 6, days after he did not appear at a celebration for the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese officials tried to block or limit discussion online of Mr. Jiang’s health, and Xinhua, the state news agency, called talk of Mr. Jiang’s death “pure rumor.”

Since then, several people with connections to senior party members have said in interviews that Mr. Jiang had suffered heart failure and other complications and was revived by doctors at the 301 Military Hospital in Beijing, though there has been no official confirmation. At the time, convoys of black sedans were seen entering and leaving the hospital grounds. Mr. Jiang, who retired as party chief in 2002 and as president in 2003, has since left the hospital but remains in poor health, said several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate situation.

His re-emergence on Sunday was “highly political,” Cheng Li, a scholar of elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an e-mail. The significance of Mr. Jiang’s sudden appearance, he said, was similar to that of the recent publication of four volumes of speeches by Zhu Rongji, who was prime minister under Mr. Jiang.

“Retired top leaders apparently want to have more say on the country’s economic policy, political succession and foreign relations, especially at a time when the Chinese public has become increasingly concerned about the administrative capacity and political unity of the current leadership,” he said.

The expected power struggles are not likely to be over the presidency and party chairmanship — the designation of Vice President Xi Jinping, favored by Mr. Jiang, appears certain. But beyond that, the character of the next leadership could pivot in part on struggles between Mr. Jiang’s loyalists and those of the current president and party chief, Hu Jintao, over who will join the Politburo Standing Committee, the group at the top of the party hierarchy that governs China by consensus.

There are nine seats on the committee, but that could change.

In recent years, Mr. Jiang, whose base of support is known as the “Shanghai Gang,” used his influence to prevent one of Mr. Hu’s allies, Li Keqiang, from becoming the consensus choice as the next president. Mr. Li is expected to become the next prime minister. The other seats appear to be up for grabs. Party officers have begun circulating lists of names among hundreds of senior officials, but the final decisions will probably not be made until next summer at the earliest.

“I’ve heard all kinds of different versions of the next lineup,” said a person with close ties to some top families.

The political maneuvering is so precarious that close family members of some leaders, including Mr. Xi, have been asked to stay out of Beijing so that their activities do not disrupt the succession process.

Mr. Jiang’s health and the level of his influence could help determine whether officials tied to him are appointed to the standing committee. They include Yu Zhengsheng, party secretary of Shanghai; Zhang Gaoli, party secretary of Tianjin; and Zhang Dejiang, a vice prime minister.

Other prominent candidates for the standing committee include Li Yuanchao, chief of the party’s Organization Department; Liu Yunshan, the Propaganda Department’s leader; Wang Qishan, a vice prime minister; Meng Jianzhu, the public security minister; and Liu Yandong, an official on the State Council and the highest-ranking woman in Chinese politics.

Some analysts say the fortunes of the most colorful and controversial candidate for the standing committee, Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing, are also tied to Mr. Jiang’s influence. Mr. Bo’s public support for a revival of socialist principles and more equitable wealth distribution seems to diverge from Mr. Jiang’s support of market-driven initiatives. But some observers say that Mr. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, had good relations with Mr. Jiang and that Bo Xilai’s “red revival” might be more a matter of superficial campaigning than ideology.

“Bo has a good chance if Jiang stays healthy and can control the process,” said an editor at a Communist Party newspaper. “Jiang wants him at the top level.”

But the editor added: “Many people don’t like him. They think, ‘This guy is dangerous. He’s capable of anything.’ ”

Others say the factors about whether Mr. Bo will get a top spot are more complicated. For one thing, questions remain about whether Mr. Bo’s so-called neo-socialist initiatives in Chongqing have become part of a larger policy debate at the central level about economic changes.

Mr. Bo’s supporters assert that the “Chongqing model” could serve as a blueprint for more equitable economic development in China.

Another candidate for the standing committee, Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong Province, which has relatively liberal economic policies, indirectly criticized Mr. Bo’s beliefs in remarks this summer.

The two officials and their supporters have also expressed diverging views on economic growth using a cake metaphor. Mr. Bo says the economic cake should be divided more equally as it is being baked; Mr. Wang has emphasized that the cake must be baked fully and efficiently first.

Mr. Hu, China’s president, has visited Mr. Wang several times in Guangdong but has not traveled recently to Chongqing, unlike Mr. Xi and several other party leaders.

Analysts say that Mr. Hu has appeared to exert his influence in many high-level appointments as the leadership transition approaches, backing allies for posts as provincial party secretaries during recent reshuffling. He has also been active in promoting army generals and is likely to remain chairman of the Central Military Commission for a couple of years if Mr. Xi becomes party chief, following the path that Mr. Jiang took when Mr. Hu came to power.