| A band plays the national anthem at the start of the 16th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. (Reuters)
Beijing, Nov. 8 (Reuters): When Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin laid out China’s economic and political reform agenda today, he gave little clue as to the real question on the minds of China watchers — will he quit'
Most expect he will, but the closest he came to a hint on the subject were repeated references to 13 years, the period he has been in the party’s top post.
And he gave up even less on who would succeed him.
In his speech opening the party’s 16th congress, Jiang broke from precedent and reviewed the 13 years since he took power after the 1989 crackdown on student-led protests around Tiananmen Square, rather than the usual five since the last congress.
“Jiang summing up 13 years of achievements shows he will step down from the party’s number one position,” Wu Guoguang, a China specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a former editor of the People’s Daily, the party newspaper.
But China watchers said there were no clear clues in his speech about who would run the world’s most populous nation if Jiang and other leaders over 70 retire as expected at the congress.
“Any reference to a 13-year record is a way of saying: ‘This is what I’ve done. This is the Jiang era and its accomplishments’,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan.
“I think it’s a way of his highlighting what he thinks has been accomplished on his watch.”
Jiang, 76, is widely expected to be replaced by Hu Jintao as party general secretary during the week-long congress, but will retain influence by packing the party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists. Jiang can also assert to be the most authoritative interpreter of his political theory, the Three Represents, which sanctions admitting capitalists into the party and is due to be enshrined in the party charter during the congress.
Some analysts said the speech did not sound like his last. “It was written like any speech. You can’t say by looking at it that it was the last speech of Jiang Zemin,” a Western diplomat said. It was hard to say whether the 90-minute speech was a farewell pep rally for the new younger leadership, or a suggestion he was needed and would be around a while.
Addressing the 2,114 delegates in Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People, Jiang spoke of “a world that is far from being tranquil and the formidable tasks before us”.
“We must be keenly aware of the rigorous challenges brought about by the ever-sharpening international competition as well as risks and difficulties that may arise on our road ahead,” said Jiang, wearing a black suit and red polka dot tie.
One retired Chinese official noted he had made no mention of the fourth generation of leaders, headed by Hu, 59. Jiang is head of the third generation after chairman Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997.
“He is unlikely to pass on power throroughly,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What Jiang is saying is that China faces many daunting problems today and the new generation of leaders lacks the experience to handle them.”
In one startling move, Jiang cut his speech short, reading only what he called the “main points” and sparking speculation about his health.
Journalists had been advised to be ready for a two to three hour speech.