BEIJING, Oct 15 (Reuters) Dogged by corruption charges, China's fourth most powerful Communist Party leader, Jia Qinglin, has been seen as proof that in the Communist Party's murky politics, connections trump clean hands.
But he faces his biggest political test when the Party's Central Committee holds elections this week, leaving open the possibility he could be voted out and therefore barred from holding his seat in the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee.
The 67-year-old has never quite lived down a massive smuggling scandal that happened under his watch when he was in charge of the southeastern province of Fujian in the 1990s, despite his name being officially cleared.
Jia managed not only to hang on, but to eventually win promotion to the Standing Committee, the Party's highest ranks, due to his close llegiance to former leader Jiang Zemin.
The Party's five-yearly conclave opened today and will culminate in a reshuffle of the top leadership, but some say Jia may be on the slate to stay on.
''By age there is no reason for him to retire,'' said Joseph Fewsmith, a China scholar at Boston University. ''But he is seen as a symbol of corruption and of the previous era.'' With more candidates than seats on the Central Committee, Party members could seize the opportunity to oust Jia.
Such an upset is not without precedent. The unpopular conservative ideologue, Deng Liqun, had been set to become an alternate member of the Politburo, but was ousted in Central Committee elections at the 13th Congress in 1987.
Jia headed Fujian when the Yuanhua Group bribed officials to turn a blind eye to smuggling through the port city of Xiamen, a scandal that implicated more than 200 senior figures, including his wife, Lin Youfang.
Several were executed in connection with the case, which embroiled kingpin Lai Changxing, who is fighting extradition charges to China from Canada.
''He really has scant respect,'' one diplomat said of Jia.
JIANG'S MAN His allegiance to Jiang saved Jia, an engineer from the northern province of Hebei. Their relationship is said to date back decades, when the two technocrats worked together at the Ministry of Machine-Building Industry.
''Plainly, he's Jiang's man,'' said Lai Hongyi, a lecturer in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Following the Fujian debacle, Jiang took pains to show his support for Jia by appearing alongside him in the state media.
Jia was whisked north to become mayor of Beijing, itself reeling from a massive corruption case that saw its party chief, Chen Xitong, arrested and vice mayor Wang Baosen commit suicide.
Beijing during Jia's tenure focused resources on the city's Zhongguancun district, which was developed into a high-tech hub that has become known as China's Silicon Valley.
In 2002, he defied expectations that his tainted past would curtail his rise to power, becoming the number four in the Party leadership line-up under President Hu Jintao and head of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a largely toothless body that advises China's rubber-stamp parliament.
But his staying power is seen as undermining the leadership's efforts to stamp out corruption, a campaign that has seen Hu sack officials as close to the heart of power as former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu and Beijing vice-mayor Liu Zhihua.
''If he stays, it would really make a mockery of things,'' the diplomat said.
REUTERS SS AS1301