China party says no disrespect meant with Jiang sign removal

BEIJING (Reuters) - The removal of a stone plinth sign written by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin at the entrance of a key Communist Party training center is not a sign of disrespect, a senior official said on Monday, after rumors of destabilizing party infighting.

China's President Xi Jinping (R) walks with retired leaders Jiang Zemin (C) and Hu Jintao (L) as they arrive at the National Day Reception to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China, at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/China Daily

Jiang stepped down as party chief in 2002 and state president in 2003 but remained head of the military for another year after stacking the Politburo, one of the party’s elite ruling bodies, with his people.

He remains influential to this day.

Rumors periodically circulate in leadership and diplomatic circles about Jiang, especially arguments between him and President Xi Jinping about policy, which with China’s political system being as opaque and secretive as it is, are impossible to verify.

So when a stone sign for the Central Party School, which was written in Jiang’s distinctive calligraphy, was removed from the front entrance in early August, speculation spread this was a sign of infighting between Xi and Jiang and that Xi was signaling his displeasure with Jiang.

The party’s official People’s Daily had already stirred the pot with a commentary criticizing unnamed officials who clung to power after retirement and caused party splits.

Asked whether the party leadership was trying to send a message with the sign’s removal, Zhuo Zeyuan, head of the school’s political science and law department, said he was aware of the concern this issue had attracted at home and abroad.

The plinth, he told a news conference ostensibly about a military parade this week marking the end of World War Two, had been moved to within the school’s ground, as too many people had been stopping outside on the main road to take pictures of it and that had become a safety issue.

“Also, the Central Party School is undergoing a full refurbishment, and moving it to the front of the main building in fact does not mean any disrespect to comrade Jiang Zemin. We still respect him as before,” said Zhuo, who has given lectures to the Politburo.

The school, which trains rising officials, had set up a “central axis” of displays as part of the renovations, including statues of Deng Xiaoping, who ushered in China’s landmark economic reforms in the late 1970s, and Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China, Zhuo said.

Jiang’s sign was at the front of that axis, he added, in rare comments on a subject state media is generally banned from openly discussing.

One source with ties to the leadership told Reuters that the appearance of Deng’s statue was meant to send a message that more focus should be put on the economy.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie