BEIJING - In his secret acceptance speech after being appointed China's Communist Party chief on Friday, Hu Jintao pledged that on important matters he would "seek instruction and listen to the views" of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, according to two party officials who attended briefings on the meeting.
The words Hu used were stronger than customary farewells to retiring leaders, the officials said, and amounted to a promise of deference, declared before the new senior leadership.
Hu's speech, to a closed caucus of party leaders Friday morning, has not been released to the public. Its contents are being officially described in briefings this week to party-affiliated institutes and agencies, ensuring that Jiang's special status as "party sage" is widely known among officials, not just an inference they should draw from Jiang's celebrity treatment in state-controlled news media.
Hu's pledge brought to mind the informal power wielded by the late Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1980s and early 1990s could single-handedly change national priorities or unseat leaders who disappointed him, even though he did not hold the titles of party or government leader.
Jiang lacks the prestige that Deng enjoyed, and no one expects him to have such sweeping influence. But Hu appears to face major constraints on his authority as he takes over the party now and the state presidency in March.
"For at least two or three years, the relationship between Hu and Jiang will be like that between Jiang and Deng in the past," said a scholar at a party institute after hearing the official description of last Friday's plenary meeting of the new Central Committee, which formally appointed Hu and other top leaders. "Hu will continue to report to Jiang about important work," he said.
Wu Guoguang, a former party official who now teaches political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Hu would have to proceed with exceptional care for now, not openly straying from Jiang's ideas.
A potential problem, Wu said, is that "there does not appear to be a clear division of labor."
"What kind of issues will be defined as important or not?" he asked.
For now, the apparent fuzziness in executive authority may not matter much because all the senior leaders seem to agree on China's basic strategy: to keep opening the economy to market forces but to keep a tight grip on politics; and to seek good relations with the United States while keeping pressure on Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland.
Jiang, many experts say, thinks of his experience as particularly vital in the arena of foreign policy. But he may also wish to head off any moves toward what he might consider a risky political liberalization, or any questioning of the violent 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square or his campaign to crush the Falun Gong movement.
The machinations over the past year that left Jiang in such a strong position are known to few, but one result is that Jiang placed at least five of his close allies on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, the top governing council. Jiang also remains, until March and possibly longer, chairman of the military.
If divisive issues arise, Hu is vulnerable to being outvoted within the top circles.
"Jiang's people are in the majority on the Standing Committee, and Hu Jintao will have to show proper deference to him," said an official of a major party institution in Beijing who also heard details of the meeting.
By saying it first himself, Hu may have prevented other senior leaders from standing up to propose some advisory status for Jiang.
Notably, Hu did not promise to follow every opinion offered by Jiang. "Seeking instruction isn't the same as seeking orders," the second party official said. "It suggests respectfully seeking out a teacher."