China intrigue over top military post

Beijing, Nov. 13: 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.

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 Xi to that post? Or will Hu depart the scene completely?

Competing possibilities have been floated in recent days, with the preponderant view being that 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 Xi greater influence over the military and a firmer grip on power from the start.

But some insiders still suggest that Hu, who appears to have lost out to Jiang, 86, in shaping the new line-up 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 Hu as top party officials tussle down to the wire over promotions of prot�g�s and protection of long-held interests. The bargaining over whether Hu stays or goes is almost certainly fierce, party insiders said yesterday.

Hu could be arguing that if he is to leave the military post then one of his prot�g�s should be added to the Standing Committee, where five of the projected seven seats are believed to have been allotted to Jiang's allies. Though considered unlikely, that suggests that the make-up of the Standing Committee could change at the last minute, before the formal announcement expected on Thursday.

Some political insiders also point out that 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 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," 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 Hu was likely to step down from the commission, and that he would do so in the interests of modernisation of the military in a new era of competition with the US.

For Hu to hand the reins of the military to 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."

There are also conflicting notions of how the competition for influence between Hu and Jiang could affect Hu's role after the congress. One supporter of Hu's said Jiang, despite what appears to be his antipathy to Hu, was leaning heavily on his successor to stay on as military chairman, even though Hu did not want to.

According to this version, proffered by a prominent Chinese businessman with strong ties to Hu, Jiang was suggesting that Hu stay in the top military post so that Jiang would "look good in the history books".

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 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 Jiang or Hu, 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 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 Hu would remain as chairman of the commission "for some time".

But a senior diplomat in Beijing said he understood that Hu would probably leave, giving Xi, who has the strong backing of Jiang, more manoeuvring room to set the nation's agenda as the first among equals in China's collective leadership.