BEIJING -- Even as the Communist Party Congress concludes its sweeping leadership transition later this week, the question of whether the departing president, Hu Jintao, will keep his powerful post as head of the military looms as a major unresolved issue, and one of deepest intrigue.
Mr. Hu is scheduled to cede the chairmanship of the ruling party to Vice President Xi Jinping at the end of the congress, but will he cling to a position of considerable influence as the civilian military chief for two more years, and delay the ascension of Mr. Xi to that post? Or will Mr. Hu depart the scene completely?
Competing possibilities have been floated in recent days, with the preponderance of opinion favoring the notion that Mr. Hu, unlike his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping, will completely retire rather than stay on as the top overseer of military affairs. That would give Mr. Xi greater influence over the military and a firmer grip on power generally right from the start.
But some insiders still suggest that Mr. Hu, who appears to have lost out to Mr. Jiang, 86, in shaping the new lineup for the top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, will nonetheless still hold on to the military post for two more years.
Whatever the final outcome, the position, known as chairman of the Central Military Commission, is likely to be the last piece of leverage for Mr. Hu as top party officials tussle right down to the wire over promotions of protégés and protection of long-held interests.
The bargaining over whether Mr. Hu stays or goes is almost certainly fierce, party insiders said Monday.
It is possible, for example, that Mr. Hu could be arguing that if he is to leave the military post then one of his protégés should be added to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, where five of the projected seven seats are believed to have been allotted to Mr. Jiang's allies. If so, that suggests that the makeup of the Standing Committee could change at the last minute, before an expected announcement around Thursday, though many observers consider a change of that kind unlikely.
Some political insiders also point out that Mr. Hu has promoted some of his military allies to senior posts recently, so he can leave confident that he can exercise his influence through them.
A political commentator here in Beijing, Chen Ziming, who is following the congress closely, said he believed that Mr. Hu would retire from the commission, although he had not heard a definitive decision.
"I don't think that Hu Jintao is so full of ambition that he wants to stay on and exert control over Xi Jinping, and I don't think he will have the power to do that," Mr. Chen said. "If he does retire, I think it will be his own choice, or that his wife pushed him to."
Last week, a former Chinese official and businessman agreed that Mr. Hu was likely to step down from the commission, and that he would do so in the interests of modernization of the military in a new era of competition with the United States.
For Mr. Hu to hand the reins of the military to Mr. Xi "accords with Hu's and other leaders' interest in institutional progress," the former official said. "The former practice of waiting for a period before stepping down was a bad habit that created problems." China is now at a stage, the former official said, where it "should have the ability to manage a full handover."
There are also conflicting notions of how the competition for influence between Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang could affect Mr. Hu's role after the congress. One supporter of Mr. Hu's said that Mr. Jiang, despite what appears to be his antipathy to Mr. Hu, was leaning heavily on his successor to stay on as military chairman, even though Mr. Hu did not want to.
According to this version, proffered by a prominent Chinese businessman with strong ties to Mr. Hu, Mr. Jiang was suggesting that Mr. Hu stay in the top military post so that Mr. Jiang would "look good in the history books."
Mr. Jiang retired as party secretary in November 2002 and stepped down as state president the next March. But he remained the chief of the military until late 2004, causing under currents of grumbling, until Mr. Hu finally took over the commission.
Earlier, Deng Xiaoping stayed on as military chief for two more years after giving up his remaining civilian titles in 1987, a position that allowed him to order the army to crack down on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But unlike Mr. Jiang or Mr. Hu, Mr. Deng had long exercised sweeping authority without holding official titles like party chief or president, so his decision to keep the military post was not as much of a conspicuous effort to retain power in retirement. "Hu as a person has high integrity, and he doesn't want to stay on," the Hu supporter said. "But there is a big push by Jiang for Hu to keep the military commission job for another two years."
Others have said Mr. Hu will stay on because he wants to. The former Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who remains close to the inner leadership in Beijing, said last month in an interview with CNN that Mr. Hu would remain as chairman of the commission "for some time."
According to an article The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, in late October, Mr. Hu was set to stay on at the military commission as part of a grand bargain with Mr. Xi.
This narrative said that Mr. Hu had confronted Mr. Xi with the idea that Mr. Hu would relinquish the military post but that in return he wanted the incoming prime minister, Li Keqiang, who is a protégé of Mr. Hu's, to be appointed as vice chairman of the military commission. Mr. Xi opted for having Mr. Hu remain military boss for two more years, rather than contending with his peer, Mr. Li, as a partner on the Military Commission for 10 years, the newspaper reported.
A senior diplomat in Beijing said he understood that Mr. Hu would leave. "I'm hearing the Shanghai crowd has won a decisive victory," the diplomat said in reference to Mr. Jiang and his supporters. "And that includes Hu out of the C.M.C." Shanghai was Mr. Jiang's power base before he ascended to the country's top leadership posts.
If Mr. Hu does stay at the military commission for two more years, the power of the incoming party secretary, Mr. Xi, who is thought to have the strong backing of Mr. Jiang, would be undercut.
Mr. Xi would be first among equals in the Politburo Standing Committee, where a majority of the projected members, like Mr. Xi himself, appear to have gotten their posts through the support of Mr. Jiang.
But if Mr. Hu retained the military post he would have influence over a wide range of issues, including national security, energy policy and foreign relations, that concern the military.
Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.