Mr. Jiang, who is 76, has retained enormous political muscle by keeping allies in key positions and staying on as chairman of the Central Military Commission despite handing his main portfolios to Mr. Hu over the past eight months.
Officials of the Communist Party and scholars who track leadership affairs report growing tensions between him and supporters of Mr. Hu, the 60-year-old president and party leader, who has solidified his stature — among reformers, at least — with his strong handling of the SARS outbreak after initial failings.
The tensions have made it harder for Mr. Hu to navigate between unusually blunt calls for political change from liberal intellectuals and fears of instability expressed by people considered close to Mr. Jiang, the party officials and analysts say.
Supporters of Mr. Jiang, the former party chief and president, may also resent that Mr. Hu has moved to take control of the agenda early in his tenure. Mr. Hu may have crossed a sensitive political line when he dismissed people handpicked for their jobs by Mr. Jiang, the officials and analysts say.
Mr. Jiang seemed to challenge one of Mr. Hu's most important decisions in late May when he invited Zhang Wenkang, the former health minister who was fired for mishandling SARS, to a private meeting in Beijing, several party officials said.
The meeting, which was not publicized, rattled some supporters of Mr. Hu who felt that Mr. Zhang had correctly been held responsible for lying about the spread of SARS in March and early April.
Editors and journalists say officials considered loyal to Mr. Jiang have sought to reverse a trend toward openness in the government-controlled press and restricted coverage of sensitive topics, including SARS and a corruption scandal in Mr. Jiang's power base of Shanghai.
Mr. Hu is cautious in public and deferential — even obsequious — to Mr. Jiang. But some analysts say he quietly asserted himself behind the scenes when he convened a meeting of the party's ruling Politburo to discuss changes to the Chinese military after the Iraq war. Mr. Jiang no longer has a seat on the Politburo and is seen as reluctant to have that body actively overseeing the armed forces.
The sensitivity of the jockeying was intensified when four party elders wrote to Mr. Jiang and the party's central leadership urging that Mr. Jiang resign as military chief to allow Mr. Hu to consolidate power.
The letter, described by two party officials with ties to the four retired leaders, may have had the effect of redoubling efforts by Mr. Jiang and his supporters to keep Mr. Hu in check, those people said.
"People's hopes are riding on Hu, especially after SARS," said a senior editor of an important party newspaper who has followed the political volatility. "But Jiang is still more powerful, and the conflict between them is becoming more evident."
Struggles for political advantage can be exaggerated in China. Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu are regarded as masters of the party's political machinery who dislike direct confrontation. To date they have not openly disagreed on anything.
Indeed, the official New China News Agency has taken the unusual step of announcing that the first major speech Mr. Hu will deliver as party general secretary on Tuesday, the 82nd anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's founding, will focus on carrying out the theory of the Three Represents.
The theory, formulated by Mr. Jiang, is notably vague. But it has been used to demonstrate that the party now speaks for a wider spectrum of people in modern China, including private business executives.
Analysts are speculating about whether Mr. Hu will use the occasion to lay out any new theories or practices. But most agree that as one editor put it, "He won't do anything to offend old Jiang."
Yet party members and government officials often have loyalty to the individuals to whom they owe their jobs, and during transitions the competition among those subgroups — like those loyal to Mr. Jiang and to Mr. Hu — can be pointed.
With China undergoing its most extensive leadership change since the death of Mao in 1976, it remains possible that jockeying for power can delay policy making or even destabilize the government.
One area that appears unusually unstable is control of the official media, on which central leaders rely to set the political tone nationwide.
Mr. Hu and another member of the Politburo's powerful standing committee, Li Changchun, have supported plans to de-emphasize the media's traditional focus on the routine meetings and speeches of top leaders and provide greater leeway for reporting on economic, social and health issues.
The new leadership team has also spoken about allowing more foreign investment in the media and reducing the number of outlets directly supported by the party.
But another important official, Liu Yunshan, the director of the party's Propaganda Department and a close ally of Mr. Jiang, favors keeping tighter controls. Journalists and editors said Mr. Liu had warned top editors at a recent meeting that foreign enemies of China were exploiting divisive topics to undermine the government, citing recent remarks by Mr. Jiang to that effect.
Mr. Liu has led a campaign to restrict coverage of sensitive issues. At least two newspapers have been shut down at least temporarily. Influential magazines including Sanlian, Caijing, News Week and Strategy & Management have been censured or threatened with closing for exceeding the limits of official tolerance.
One subject that has now been largely banned is the ongoing investigation into a scandal surrounding the rise of a Shanghai tycoon named Zhou Zhengyi, who built a property empire on government bank loans during the 1990's.
During that decade Mr. Jiang and his closest supporters steered government support to Shanghai on a large scale. Mr. Jiang is viewed as wanting to keep the investigation of Mr. Zhou low-profile so it does not impugn high-ranking officials like Huang Ju, the former Shanghai party chief who is now a member of the Politburo standing committee.
In April Mr. Zhang, a military doctor who had been picked as health minister by Mr. Jiang, became a prominent symbol of Mr. Hu's willingness to hold officials accountable for mistakes. Few people questioned that Mr. Zhang had covered up the spread of SARS, contributing to its rapid spread and forcing an embarrassing about-face for party leaders.
In inviting Mr. Zhang to meet with him, Mr. Jiang signaled that he intended to defend his supporters and that he disapproved of Mr. Hu's handling of SARS, party officials said.
His intervention would appear to explain the erratic way that Gao Qiang, a deputy health minister who became the main spokesman for SARS policy, described the political fallout of the disease during separate televised news conferences.
In mid-April, Mr. Gao announced the dismissal of Mr. Zhang and another senior official and condemned their mistakes. Then in late May, shortly after Mr. Jiang was said to have met with Mr. Zhang, Mr. Gao reversed himself and strongly defended Mr. Zhang. At a third news conference in mid-June, Mr. Gao reverted to his original line, saying Mr. Zhang had made serious errors that justified his firing.
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