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Old guard finds it hard to let go

world Updated: Nov 15, 2012 01:56 IST

The melody to a long-forgotten song for the 1930s movie Jungle Princess. A hefty donation to a scholarship fund for poor students. Prominent seats at the women’s finals at the China Open.

From such apparently disparate strands, analysts discern a common theme: the re-emergence of China’s former party leaders just as incumbents prepare to hand power to younger figures this week.

Last year, 86-year-old Jiang Zemin was so low profile that a Hong Kong television station was forced to apologise for wrongly reporting his death, which had been widely rumoured. This year, he attended the 18th party congress seated next to incumbent President Hu Jintao, has met the Starbucks CEO, attended a concert and written a verse for his old school.

A state television channel devoted coverage last month to former leader Li Lanqing’s search for the sheet music to Moonlight and Shadows, from a Dorothy Lamour film. His patron Jiang had been able to write the song’s tune and lyrics from memory, it noted. It was, surmised analysts, a not particularly subtle hint about his continuing vigour and alertness.

Like former premier Li Peng’s $4,800,000 donation to a scholarship fund, and the attendance of another elder, Li Ruihuan, at the tennis match, such forays into the public eye are intended to signal that retired leaders are still around and active.

The congress, which concluded Wednesday, demonstrates the party’s attempts to institutionalise politics and contain the power of individuals. Introducing set terms and age limits was supposed to ensure smooth transitions.

But the enduring role of retired leaders illustrates the limits of that project and the extent to which power in China is still about personalities and patronage.