China's Hu now free -- to be his old careful self

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BEIJING, Oct 23 (Reuters) With his predecessor literally out of the picture, Chinese President Hu Jintao is now clearly his own boss -- and yet domestic worries and succession concerns mean he is likely to stay a guardedly incremental leader.

The front page of the People's Daily, the Communist Party's newspaper, said it all today.

Former President Jiang Zemin was absent from the official pictures of the Party's top line-up, which emerged a day earlier following the Party's five-yearly Congress.

Jiang stepped down as president in 2003 and as chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission in 2004, but his picture lingered among official portraits of the elite -- a token of his presumed stake in an elite packed with men promoted under him.

Until now.

The stiff official portraits now feature Hu with his sleek, unnaturally black hair, and then his comrades on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost circle of power, including two recruits in their early 50s likely to succeed Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao five years hence. But not Jiang.

A picture of the rotund, grey-haired retiree shaking hands with Congress delegates - though not military ones, who were shown only with Hu - was relegated to an inside page of the paper.

''I think that reflects the fact that Hu's power is now fully consolidated,'' said Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist Youth League official, speaking of the photo arrangements.

''Up until now I think Jiang's influence was a lot less than some people thought, but now there's no doubt that his influence is negligible. That's the message.'' USHERED OUT Zeng Qinghong, long Jiang's organisational lieutenant and a powerful figure in his own right, was also gone, ushered into retirement.

''Now no one on the Standing Committee has the experience or seniority to challenge Hu,'' said Zhang.

But if Hu has made clear he is free of Jiang, he nonetheless faces expectations and constraints likely to reinforce his aversion to dramatic gambits or policy breaks, analysts said.

In today's China no leader can dictate outcomes in the way Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping could.

''Harmony'', not struggle, is the watchword as the Party of Marx and Mao seeks to keep reins on restive peasants, a maturing middle class and feverish market growth.

Stinging memories of domestic upheaval under Mao, the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and the collapse of Communist Parties across the Soviet bloc also discourage leaders from risking cautious unity.

Today, the People's Daily again reminded readers ''staunchly unified collective leadership'' was essential.

These pressures are likely to produce five more years of guarded reform as Hu shapes his legacy.

''We envision continued policy incrementalism as opposed to any sharp ruptures in previous policy trends,'' wrote Jason Kindopp of Eurasia Group, a company that assesses political risk, in a research note.

Hu also faces the challenge of engineering a succession that will preserve his influence and avoid destabilising rivalry.

The front-runner to succeed Hu is now Xi Jinping, 54, who has been Party boss of Shanghai.

When the new Standing Committee was presented to the world, Xi emerged ahead of Li Keqiang, 52, chief of the northeastern province of Liaoning, who many observers said has been Hu's favoured choice for successor.

But both men would probably be acceptable to Hu as heirs, said Zhang, the former official.

Even if Li does not press a claim to the top Party job in coming years, some have warned of potentially destabilising rivalry as Xi, Li and other contenders seek to carve up influence among the elite who will emerge at the next Congress in 2012.

''I think there may be real competition over the next five years,'' said Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University, noting the backseat positioning of both Xi and Li in the formal Party ranking left room for Xi to be sidelined.

In succession politics too, however, Hu is likely to favour horse-trading and subtle testing of the contenders, not outright contention, said Bo Zhiyue of St John Fisher College in New York.

Neither Xi nor Li hold the political resources or staunch loyalists to wage political warfare, Bo said.

Hu meekly bided his time for 10 years before succeeding Jiang, and he will also expect potential successors to submerge personal ambition in collective unity.

''Political rivalry between Li and Xi, if any, would be personal rivalry instead of factional,'' Bo wrote in an e-mail.

REUTERS ARB RK1230

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