BEIJING -- In a year blighted by scandals and corruption charges at the commanding heights of the Communist Party, a retired party chief some had written off as a spent force has thrust himself back into China's most important political decisions and emerged as a dominant figure shaping the future leadership.
The resurgence of former leader Jiang Zemin, 86, is all the more striking because he was said last year to be severely ill and near death. But over recent months, Mr. Jiang, who left office a decade ago, has worked assiduously behind the scenes, voicing frustration with the record of his successor, Hu Jintao, and maneuvering to have his proteges dominate the party's incoming ruling group.
Mr. Jiang even weighed in on how to deal with Bo Xilai, the populist popular political figure who was caught up in a major scandal and was investigated after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.
Mr. Jiang has also sought to shape policy, party insiders say, by proposing changes to an agenda-setting report that will be presented today on the opening day of the 18th Party Congress, the weeklong meeting that precedes the naming of Mr. Hu's replacement and a new generation of leaders.
Mr. Jiang's goal, those insiders say, appears to be to put China back on a path toward market-oriented economic policies that he and his allies argue stagnated under a decade of cautious leadership by Mr. Hu, a colorless party leader who favored more traditional socialist programs and allowed gargantuan state-owned companies to amass greater wealth and influence.
Many see Mr. Jiang, who brought China into the World Trade Organization and rebuilt ties to the United States after a breakdown in 1989, as favoring deeper ties to the West and more opportunities for China's private sector.
Mr. Jiang was able to outflank Mr. Hu to shape a new lineup for the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body that, at the moment, appears to have Jiang allies chosen for five of the projected seven seats, according to party insiders. The most prominent is Xi Jinping, the designated heir to Mr. Hu as party chief and president.
"Just look at the final seven people, and you know who the big winner is: Jiang, or Jiang and Xi," said an editor at a party media organization. "The loser is Hu."
That Mr. Jiang has been able to insert himself so boldly shows how diluted power has become at the Communist Party apex, just as policymakers and intellectuals from all quarters say the nation needs strong leadership to guide it through a period of a slowing economy and rising social discontent.