BEIJING — China’s retired political leaders have been keeping an unusually low profile ahead of the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress kicking off Wednesday, raising questions about how much influence these party elders still wield.
Former Politburo Standing Committee member Song Ping was reported by Chinese news media late last month to have met with officials from Renmin University of China. The 100-year-old party elder was pictured standing outdoors, showing him active and in good health.
Song had pushed such former top officials as ex-President Hu Jintao and ex-Premier Wen Jiabao up the party’s ranks when they were younger and also backed President Xi Jinping’s ascent to the top ranks. He is said to often side with Xi at the annual closed-door meeting at Beidaihe between party elders and current leaders.
Song was the sole party elder to appear in public this past month. Former President Jiang Zemin has not been seen since an appearance at a Shanghai university back in May — and even then, few news outlets picked up the story. The trip, confirmed mainly through photos online, was likely intended to dispel rumors of a health scare.
Hu has been rarely spotted since January, when he visited the city of Guangzhou, the home turf of close friend and Guangdong Province party chief Hu Chunhua.
Party elders were much more visible in the lead-up to the last party congress five years ago. Jiang appeared in public twice in the two months prior, including at a show in Beijing. His rival, former Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Li Ruihuan, watched a tennis tournament in the capital. Ex-Premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng were also reported to be making moves to insert proteges into key party roles.
But Hu Jintao opposed having retired officials having a hand in state affairs and largely kept out of politics since retiring. As other party elders lose clout in old age, Xi has steadily solidified his power through his anti-corruption campaign.
Some even question whether the elders will attend this year’s congress. In 2012, Jiang entered the room right after then-President Hu, demonstrating his status.
Whether the elders show up will also affect the composition of the body that decides the membership of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, made up of 200 or so of the party’s highest-ranking members. Elders accounted for 12 of the decision-making body’s 41 members five years ago. With 15 party elders currently living, by precedent they should constitute about a third of this year’s panel.
“The party elders may not be visible, but they maintain a solid influence behind the scenes,” a party source said. The body’s makeup could influence the direction of the congress as well, the source pointed out.