The significance of reports of Jiang's demise
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - About a decade after his retirement from active political life, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's health has become the center of public attention at home and overseas, with the reaction to unconfirmed reports of his demise proving that the health of senior Chinese leaders, in office or retired, remains a closely guarded "state secret".

China's media censors have blocked discussions and information searches on the Internet about Jiang since Wednesday after some Chinese websites uploaded reports that the 84-year-old was in a "critical condition" or even dead. The Chinese government

 
 
also expressed "indignation" at Hong Kong's Asia Television (ATV) for "cooking up the rumor" after the channel came out with the initial report that Jiang had died.

Jiang's health arouses so much attention simply because there is a general belief that the retired leader still retains his political influence and as such would have a say in the reshuffle of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the 18th party congress next year. Jiang served as general secretary of the party from 1989 to 2002, as president of the country from 1993 to 2003, and as chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989 to 2004. If he were to pass away or fall seriously ill before then, the pattern of power distribution might be affected.

On the part of the Chinese authorities, maintaining stability ahead of the congress is a task of utmost importance. They could not allow unconfirmed reports, speculation or rumors to spread out of concern that these would stir up unexpected and unnecessary trouble. For them, any discussion on Jiang's health could eventually lead to comments on current politics and the 18th party congress, and that could not be tolerated.

Speculation over Jiang was sparked after his failure to attend the July 1 grand ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, marking the party's 90th birthday. Other retired leaders, such as former National People's Congress chairman Li Peng, former premier Zhu Rongji, former vice president Zeng Qinghong, were all present to listen to a long speech delivered by President Hu Jintao.

It was very unusual for Jiang, the "core" of the party's third-generation leadership, to be absent at such an important occasion. On October 1, 2009, he stood by Hu at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing to review a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Jiang is not a person to shun the limelight, even after retirement. In past years, he has traveled widely around the country and his activities were reported both formally or informally. He made his last public appearance last November during an inspection tour in Dujiangyan, a city in Sichuan province that was hit by a magnitude 8 earthquake three years ago.

In a photo pasted on the Internet showing Jiang waving his hand to onlookers, an ambulance is seen standing by his car. This prompted speculation that he was ill, though he appeared healthy and energetic.

On June 25, Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing Phoenix Television carried a story about Jiang's retirement life on its website, which quoted sources close to the top CCP leadership as saying that "Jiang was hit in April by a sudden and very serious illness. Although after treatment he has gradually recovered, his physical condition is deteriorating day after day due to his advanced age".

Jiang's absence at the July 1 celebration reminded people of this report. Media inside and outside China began trying to dig up more about his health.

Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, China's censors began on Wednesday to block information searches on the Internet with key words such as "Jiang Zemin" or "general secretary". Even words with the Chinese character of his surname "Jiang" (meaning "river") were blocked. That talking about the former leader had suddenly become taboo only helped arouse suspicion.

On Wednesday afternoon, a real estate website based in the central Chinese city of Wuhan - Fdc.com.cn - uploaded an "exclusive report" on its business news section saying Jiang was in a "critical condition". But that was quickly deleted.

In the evening, Shandong News (Sdnews.com.cn), the official website of the Shandong provincial government, ran a black-and-white obituary page with Jiang's picture and a big banner saying "Comrade Jiang Zemin is forever remembered!" The whole website was shut down at around 8pm and has remained inaccessible since.

At about the same time, Hong Kong's ATV, controlled by an entrepreneur from Shanghai, reported Jiang's "passage" as breaking news in its 6pm prime news program. It repeated the "news" in its 10pm news broadcast, though played it down a bit.

It was not until noon the next day that the state-run Xinhua News Agency dispatched a one-sentence statement, quoting "authoritative sources", saying, "Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are pure rumor."

But it failed to declare that Jiang was in good health. As such, this can be read as confirmation that Jiang is ill, but how seriously is anyone's guess. Such a statement is unlikely to stop speculation that Jiang's health is deteriorating, at least not until he makes a public appearance.

Shortly after the Xinhua report, Beijing-funded Hong Kong China News Agency (HKCNA) also dispatched a statement by the Liaison Office of the central government in Hong Kong that "Hong Kong ATV's report is a totally fabricated rumor. We express our extreme indignation over its serious violation of the journalistic moral code."

In another article dispatched on Friday morning, HKCNA, quoting an "authoritative source", said the operation of the CCP's top leadership remained stable and normal and would not be affected by the passage of a leader. Intriguingly, this article was quickly deleted from its website.

Such a big stir about Jiang's health is, in the first place, caused by Beijing's policy to keep personal information about its leaders secret. But it also reflects concern about a possible impact on the power transition next year.

Jiang is virtually the first top Chinese leader to give up lifetime tenure. Jiang passed his posts as party's general secretary, state president and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to Hu Jintao in 2002, 2003 and 2004 successively. But suspicion has remained since his full retirement whether he would continue to exercise his influence on Chinese politics, especially given the precedence set by his mentor Deng Xiaoping, who never held the top post but retained the authority to appoint top leaders.

Therefore, in past years there have been commentaries and analyses about his "power struggles" with Hu on major party and state affairs, especially the appointment and promotion of senior officials. But Jiang's post-retirement influence should not be over-exaggerated. And as time goes by, such influence tends to diminish.

Unlike Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping who had fought "on horseback" to seize power and thus earned their legitimacy to rule, Jiang's legitimacy was granted by Deng. As such he never had full authority like Deng to do whatever he wished even when he was in office. A good example is that, years after Deng's death, Jiang still had to follow Deng's arrangement and pass his throne to Hu instead of someone else of his own choosing.

On the other hand, through proteges he appointed and promoted to important posts, Jiang could still exercise influence after his retirement. But that gradually decreases as the proteges step down one after another for various reasons. In the current Standing Committee of the Politburo, only Jia Qingling could be said to be Jiang's staunch follower. But Jia is set to retire next year.

Jiang's diminishing political influence could also be seen from the fact that several of his proteges were disgraced after his retirement.

In 2003, then health minister Zhang Wenkang, said to be Jiang's personal medical adviser, was sacked for trying to cover up the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic. Then Hong Kong's chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, favored by Jiang, had to step down "for health reasons" but in fact for his incapability to run the Special Administrative Region.

In 2006, then-Shanghai party chief and politburo member Chen Liangyu was sacked on corruption charges. Chen's downfall marked the collapse of the so-called Shanghai clique. Disgraced minister of railways Liu Zhijun, who is still under investigation for suspected corruption, was also said quite close to Jiang.

In 2010, Hu promoted 11 senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers to the rank of full general. It took many by surprise that Lieutenant General Jia Ting'an, a long-time close aide of Jiang, was not on the list.

After graduation from Chengdu Electronic Technology University in 1982, Jia began to work as Jiang's secretary, then as a vice minister of the electronics industry. He then followed Jiang wherever the latter went. In 1994, Jia was appointed as director of the General Office of the CMC.

In 2005 he was granted the rank of lieutenant general and two years later promoted to deputy director of the PLA's General Political Department. By the book, he was qualified to be promoted to full general last year. But perhaps his close ties to Jiang became more of a liability than an asset.

All this may be evidence that Jiang's influence after retirement may not be as strong as many have thought. But one should not jump to the conclusion that he has lost all his political influence.

After all, having ruled the party and country for more than a decade, Jiang is still respected as a "core" member of the CCP's third-generation leadership. Quite a number of his political cronies and proteges are still alive and/or in powerful posts. As such, if his health permits, Jiang surely could have his say on next year's leadership reshuffle, though it is also equally certain that he does not have the absolute say.

From another perspective, it may not necessarily be a bad thing for retired leaders like Jiang to retain some limited political influence, given the current situation in China.

Retired leaders are still party members and they have the right to speak out and vote according to the party's constitution. Moreover, as a sound "checks and balances" is still lacking in both party and state structures, retired leaders retaining certain influence may serve as a check to prevent top leaders in power from becoming dictatorial.

In Jiang's own case, with Deng behind the scene, he had to work hard to implement the reform and opening up policy. When the CCP held its 17th congress in 2007, many expected Hu would endorse his protege Li Keqiang. But in the end, Xi Jinping won out. No doubt, this was a compromise among various groups or factions within the party, including retired leaders.