Past leaders a force to be reckoned with
BEIJING - None got to speak, one appeared sleepy, and many sported more white hair and wrinkles than before.
They are China's arguably most famous retirees - all former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders - who appeared en masse yesterday at the opening of the 18th Party Congress.
Ten of them, including former president Jiang Zemin, 86, and ex-premiers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji, both 84, were attending the five-yearly event as "special delegates", in keeping with past practice.
Also present were former organisation chief Song Ping, 95, and ex-security czar Luo Gan, 77, who looked sleepy.
But unlike the languid picture they presented, China's retired leaders are actually not a frail, quiet and toothless lot.
Some of them, in particular Mr Jiang, have reportedly been exercising their influence behind the scenes to secure plum posts for their proteges amid the impending leadership change, and to have a say in China's future direction.
Apart from attending backroom negotiations over the leadership line-up at the Beidaihe retreat in July, many have been making rare public appearances recently and getting lengthy, rosy mentions in state media.
These appearances and media mentions have raised eyebrows because China's retired leaders are rarely seen or heard as part of an unspoken rule not to undermine their successors.
Said Singapore-based China expert Li Mingjiang: "They appeared in public and in state media to show that they still matter and they still play a role in elite politics in China."
Mr Jiang appeared in public as early as April when he met Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
As the congress neared, he attended a Beijing concert with his closest protege, former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, in September.
Some retired leaders followed suit.
Mr Zhu met the advisory board of Tsinghua University's business school late last month alongside Vice-Premier Wang Qishan. Former top political adviser Li Ruihuan, 78, was seen early last month at the China Open tennis finals.
Last week, Mr Li, who was premier from 1987 to 1998, made news with a 3 million yuan (S$583,000) donation to a scholarship for students in the CCP's old Yan'an revolutionary base in Shaanxi province.
In August, the People's Daily, the CCP's mouthpiece, ran a near full-page tribute praising his efforts towards China's economic growth and reforms.
Singapore's East Asia Institute analyst Chen Gang believes that the retired leaders' high visibility of late reflected a wider chasm within the party.
Also, he said, some may have become increasingly dissatisfied with the pace of reforms and seek to put their allies in the new leadership team so as to steer the country in their preferred way.