Jiang Zemin's backing of Xi not coincidence

By Wang Xiangwei
We may live in the 21st century with the internet and social media delivering up-to-the-second news on events around the world, but that hasn't made it any easier to make sense of Chinese politics. It remains as secretive and opaque as ever. 

Case in point is Jiang Zemin - what's the former president up to? That question has been the centre of intense speculation ever since he made a rare and high-profile return to public life last Monday.
After months out of sight, Jiang was quoted praising President Xi Jinping in a meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
The meeting took place on July 3, but was not disclosed until the Foreign Ministry placed a news item on its website nearly three weeks later.
The item said Jiang and his wife dined with Kissinger and his family in Shanghai and had "very relaxed, very sincere, very important" conversations.
The report raised a flurry of questions: why was Jiang re-emerging now? What were the political implications of his appearance?
Firstly, it shows Jiang still wields considerable influence as a kingmaker. That's despite his formal retirement from politics nearly a decade ago and reports earlier this year that Jiang asked for a lower political ranking to give more freedom to Xi.
During the 10-year reign of former president Hu Jintao , Jiang's ranked immediately behind Hu and ahead of the other Politburo Standing Committee members in the Communist Party hierarchy.
Secondly, by openly endorsing the new president as a "strong and capable leader", Jiang clearly wants to be seen as fully supportive of Xi, who faces pressure from the party's left, right and centre. Xi is also coping with slowing economic growth and rising social and ethnic unrest.
The report's timing is also significant because party leaders are preparing for their annual summit at the Beidaihe resort in Hebei . At the meetings they will seek consensus on various issues and set broad outlines for political, economic and social policies.
The latest rumours suggest that temperatures are running high among officials already there, making consensus on major issues difficult.
The report is Jiang's way of letting bickering officials know that he is fully behind Xi, thus preventing anybody from directly challenging the new leader.
"Although we currently still have many difficulties to overcome, I have full confidence in the new leadership," Jiang said.
The report quoted Jiang as saying that he had spoken to Xi about his meeting with Kissinger, signalling that he was in close contact with the new leader.
It is hardly a coincidence that the report on Jiang's remarks came just days before the government announced its indictment of Bo Xilai - once one of China's most high-flying politicians - on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
In this context, the move also appears aimed at preventing the party's leftists from using Bo's case to influence the agenda at the Beidaihe meetings.
Also noteworthy was Jiang's praise for Xi's "determined decisions" in response to the violent ethnic unrest in Xinjiang . It reminded people of how Deng Xiaoping set his sights on Hu as a successor in the 1980s after learning of Hu's resolute crackdown on violent protests in Tibet, where he was party chief.
According to the report, Jiang and Kissinger reminisced about their first meetings - particularly after the government's bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989. At the time, China was faced with international isolation and the country was at a crossroads.
Kissinger was quoted as praising Jiang for his efforts to overcome the difficulties and keeping the country on the reform path.
After Deng installed Jiang as the party chief, Jiang was under tremendous pressure from the party's conservative faction. Deng - keen to protect his legacy and pursue further reform - went on his famous southern tour in 1992, calling on whoever opposed the policy to step down.
Deng's warning helped push back the conservative tide and prodded Jiang to pursue a pro-reform agenda, which saw China register double-digit economic growth rates during his reign.
China is at a similar critical juncture now. Is Jiang signalling that he would lend Xi a hand in the same way Deng helped him?
The day after Jiang's remarks were made public, Xinhua quoted Xi as saying that China must deepen reforms with "ever more political courage and wisdom". Probably not a coincidence, but as always, China's leaders keep us guessing.

NOTE— The above article was initially published in the South China Morning Post print edition as Intrigue behind Jiang's support

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