The glacially slow, once-in-a-decade process of transferring power from one generation of Chinese leaders to the next begins Thursday when the Communist Party opens its 18th party conference.
No major policy changes are expected at the weeklong 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and even the carefully choreographed changes in personnel will take several years to complete. Current President Hu Jintao may stay on for some time in at least one of the three posts that China's heads of state hold, analysts say.
Mr. Hu, age 69, is not just president of the People's Republic of China, but also leader of the Communist Party and chairman of the 12-member Central Military Commission, the rough equivalent of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. He will surrender his party leadership position to his presumed successor, current Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, at the 2,000-member congress. In March, he is expected to resign the presidency, allowing Mr. Xi to step up.
However, Mr. Hu will likely stay on as chairman of the military commission, according to veteran China watcher Willy Lam at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He may do so for as long as "five years, particularly given the fact that he has to watch over his political proteges ... and protect his political legacy," Mr. Lam said.
"As long as he is the [military commission] chief, he will still be the power behind the throne," he added.
When Mr. Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin as president and party chairman 10 years ago, Mr. Jiang remained chairman of the military commission for two years and hobbled any chance Mr. Hu might have had to put his own stamp on the military because of the long career of officers appointed by his predecessor.
That is a problem many Chinese leaders want to avoid repeating, said retired U.S. Army Col. Larry Wortzel, a member of the congressionally appointed bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
He predicted opposition to any effort by Mr. Hu to extend his tenure on the military commission.
"It will be very unpopular with the [People's Liberation Army, or PLA] and Xi would surely resist it," Mr. Wortzel said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hu might need to hang on to power to "protect himself from corruption scandals," he added.
If Mr. Hu does cling to leadership, he will be following the model of his own predecessor.
Mr. Jiang – although he is 86 years old and holds no formal office – continues to be a key decision-maker, exerting influence through a network of supporters and allies who are members of the party or military commission leadership, analysts say.
Most of the personnel changes in China's leadership that will accompany Mr. Hu's slow fade have already been agreed in advance by a triumvirate of himself, Mr. Xi and Mr. Jiang – the current, future and former leaders.
At a meeting Sunday of Communist Party leaders, two generals, reportedly close to Mr. Hu, were named as vice chairmen of the military commission – effectively his two deputies on the commission.
"There seems to be a concerted effort to promote a broader range of military thought and strategy in the [People's Liberation Army]," said Mr. Wurtzel.
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