HONG KONG/BEIJING - As China's Communist Party opened its 18th Congress in Beijing, outgoing President and party chief Hu Jintao was the first senior leader to enter the Great Hall of the People, greeted by thunderous applause from over 2,000 delegates as he walked to his front-row seat.
Hu was followed closely by a man who hasn't held a formal position of power in China for a decade.
Former president Jiang Zemin, 86, his hair dyed walnut brown, shook hands with other comrades and smiled as he entered ahead of the rest of China's core leadership, including Xi Jinping, the anointed next party general secretary and president.
The procession unambiguously validated Jiang's position at the pinnacle of China's politics, and he has worked assiduously to make sure his influence will be felt throughout the next leadership, which will be unveiled publicly on Thursday.
"He's still very much the power behind the throne," said Hong Kong-based China expert Willy Lam, who has written a book on Jiang.
As China undergoes its current leadership transition, Jiang has emerged as a critical power broker whose behind-the-scenes influence brings fresh uncertainty, and could hobble the new ruling elite's attempts to pursue reforms.
Part of the motivation for his deep involvement in China's imminent leadership transition, party insiders said, is personal. He wants to make sure his two sons, both of whom are successful businessmen, are protected at a time of enhanced scrutiny of the wealth accummlated by the families of the country's top leadership.
Details of Jiang's backroom dealings also reveal, sources said, his complicated relationship with Hu. They are not all-out rivals, but neither are they firm poltical allies.
Earlier this year, Jiang was instrumental in the demotion of Ling Jihua, one of Hu's closest allies, after reports that Ling's son was killed in a car crash involving a luxury sports car in March, sources said.
"Jiang asked Hu whether Ling Jihua was still fit to be director of the (party Central Committee's) General Office after the accident," one source told Reuters, referring to the key role overseeing logistics and liaising with senior leaders.
"Ling Jihua was demoted after that."
Jiang has immersed himself in high level politics with renewed and surprising vigour this year after several relatively quiet years since the previous party congress in 2007.
Last year, rumours swirled that he was seriously ill, and a Hong Kong television station reported that he had died.
In recent months his public appearances have been select but poignant, including a Johann Strauss musical performance at Beijing's National theatre in September. Overall, in the past year, there have been more public Jiang sightings than at any point since his retirement.