BEIJING - Jiang Zemin may have relinquished the top position in the ruling Communist Party yesterday, but his reappointment as head of the Central Military Commission immediately raised questions about the real extent of the power of Hu Jintao, Jiang's successor as chief of the Communist Party.
As a weeklong meeting of the Chinese Communist Party leadership wound to a conclusion, the talk here was more about Jiang's apparent victory in nominal retirement than about Hu's ascension.
The Standing Committee of the Politburo, the top council that was expanded yesterday to nine members from seven, was clearly packed with Jiang loyalists who could prevent any major departures in policy. With his reappointment as head of the military, Jiang - who spent 13 years as party leader - also appeared intent on keeping one critical position for himself.
Hu could be a "figurehead" on the Standing Committee, said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese politics who teaches at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Boston University professor Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership, said, only half jokingly, "It seems that Jiang is stronger today than he was yesterday."
"Hu Jintao has to wait another five years and then try again for dominance," Fewsmith added.
By various counts, five and perhaps six of the nine Standing Committee members are close to Jiang. Those known to be Jiang loyalists include Wu Bangguo, who has been an economic official; Zeng Qinghong, Jiang's longtime aide and strategist; Jia Qingling, former party secretary of Beijing; Huang Ju, former secretary of Shanghai; and Li Changchun, former secretary of Guangzhou.
Last night's news programs featured Jiang at an event in the Great Hall, greeting the retired and promoted military brass and warning them of the stiff challenges they face in a changing world.
Even as all generals over 70 were swept off the Central Military Commission, Jiang was reappointed chairman, evoking memories of the late Deng Xiaoping, who virtually ran the country for a time from that perch.
Jiang is not nearly so venerated, but the post guarantees him a strong voice on security and foreign policy matters, and he appears to enjoy personal support from the military.
Some experts think Jiang may still resign from the military post next March, during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, when he must give up the state presidency at the end of his two legal terms. Others think he is planning to stay on longer, at the possible risk of fostering divisions at the top during a military crisis.
The evening news last night also featured an unusually emotional reception, a moment of political theater that took place inside the Great Hall of the People yesterday afternoon.
Thousands of delegates to the disbanded party congress assembled in a huge circle, to exchange greetings with the retiring and the newly named leaders of the Communist Party.
Despite the obstacles he faces, no one should underestimate Hu, said Li, the Hamilton professor. Though he may be surrounded by Jiang proteges, he has been more successful at bringing his own allies, younger technocrats from his years in the Communist Youth League and in three remote provinces, into the Central Committee. Now he can foster his own networks of influence.