The lingering influence of retired top Chinese leaders is a subject of constant gossip and speculation in China-watching circles.
The chatter spiked suddenly last week when former supremo Jiang Zemin, 87, surfaced publicly to heap effusive praise on current leader Xi Jinping by calling him “wise and capable”.
Mr Jiang’s comments raised eyebrows on several fronts, not least for the fact that it was carried on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website and in state media, almost three weeks after he made them.
Also striking was that he made his glowing appraisal of Mr Xi in the presence of visiting US statesman Henry Kissinger during their Shanghai meeting on July 3.
Mr Jiang’s high-profile emergence is unusual on several counts and has left many searching for clues and answers regarding his motives and the level of support Mr Xi enjoys within the Communist Party’s top echelons.
First, Mr Jiang has never praised Mr Hu Jintao – his immediate successor and Mr Xi’s predecessor – in such warm words.
Second, it is an unspoken rule for retired Chinese leaders to stay out of the spotlight and not comment on the current leadership. For instance, since retiring in March this year, Mr Hu has hardly appeared in the public eye.
Mr Jiang has often flouted the rule by making public appearances as a show of force, like he did in the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress, at which he reportedly played a role in installing several proteges in the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
In 2007, he had also played a crucial role in putting Mr Xi ahead of Mr Li Keqiang – the current premier – in the race to become the heir-apparent to Mr Hu.
But Mr Jiang was supposedly prevented from interfering with politics any longer from last November after Mr Hu made an unprecedented complete retirement at the 18th Party Congress. Instead of holding on to the Central Military Commission chairman post, like Mr Jiang did for two more years after retiring in 2002, Mr Hu relinquished it to Mr Xi, the incoming Communist Party general secretary.
Mr Hu’s move was seen as a sign of his frustration with Mr Jiang’s interference in his administration over the years and an attempt to make a political statement that retired leaders should stay out of the scene.
For a few months this year, Mr Jiang did stay quiet, giving rise to the impression that he was playing by the rules of the game – until his latest re-emergence.
A plausible motive floated by many observers is Mr Jiang’s desire to stage a show of unity with Mr Xi, who is facing rising pressure from both reformers and conservatives ahead of an annual meeting between current and retired party leaders at the Beidaihe resort in northern Hebei province.
There, they will discuss and forge consensus on issues such as economic and social policy reforms that Mr Xi is expected to roll out at the party’s upcoming third plenum around October, as part of China’s efforts to transform its economy and quell potential social unrest amid a slowing economy.
Some believe that in doing so, Mr Jiang is also trying to curry favour with Mr Xi so as to protect his proteges amid the latter’s unrelenting anti-graft campaign, which has seen the Communist Party despatching inspection teams across the country to check on local officials and government agencies.
“It’s very likely that Xi’s inspection teams were starting to threaten to roll up Jiang’s many political networks. Jiang’s praise is a signal to Xi that he supports him, but not necessarily all of the current crackdown on cadres,” Beijing-based political analyst Russell Leigh Moses told The Straits Times.
Dr Moses, dean at the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies, believes Mr Jiang may have cut a deal with Mr Xi to be less harsh on his proteges than with those loyal to Mr Hu and other leaders.
Some, however, believe disgraced Politburo member and Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, reportedly a favourite of Mr Jiang, could be another factor.
South China Morning Post editor Wang Xiangwei wrote last week that it was “hardly a coincidence that the report on Jiang’s remarks came just days before the government announced its indictment of Bo Xilai”.
Bo, 64, was charged in a Shandong court on July 25 – two days after Mr Jiang’s remarks made news. A poster-boy of the leftist camp through his Maoist-revival campaign, Bo is set to stand trial soon on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.
“In this context, the move also appears aimed at preventing the party’s leftists from using Bo’s case to influence the agenda at the Beidaihe meetings,” wrote Mr Wang.
However, observers say there are no clear answers behind Mr Jiang’s re-emergence due to the opaque nature of Chinese politics.
One thing is for sure: the strongman still exerts sizeable influence or at least has interest in getting involved, despite attempts to keep him down.