By: Our Correspondent

Now we know what Vice-President Xi Jinping must have felt when he
failed to make it to the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military
Commission at a plenary session of the Central Committee last month.
The supposed front-runner to succeed Party Chief and President Hu
Jintao apparently blamed the supremo for not inducting him into the
policy-setting military commission, which has been headed by Hu since
2004.

During his current trip to five European countries, Xi,
56, has departed from protocol and hardly given Hu a mention. According
to long-standing diplomatic custom, a senior Chinese cadre on tour
would first convey to his hosts the greetings of President Hu. Xi's
failure to acknowledge and salute Hu's leadership was most obvious when
he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday.

Before
the official discussion began, Xi handed to Merkel the English editions
of two books – on energy and on information technology – written by
ex-president Jiang Zemin. According to the official Xinhua News Agency,
Xi then "passed along Comrade Jiang Zemin's greetings and good wishes"
to the German leader. Merkel reciprocated by asking Xi to send her
greetings to Jiang. There was no reference to Hu throughout the two
leaders' tete-a-tete.

This was the first time in less than two
weeks that ex-president Jiang, 83, appears to have upstaged the
67-year-old Hu. During celebrations to mark the 60th birthday of the
People's Republic of China on October 1, the official Chinese media
gave Jiang pretty much the same prominence as Hu. For example, he
appeared 20 times on CCTV's coverage of the all-important military
parade. And Hu was caught a couple of times on TV assuming a humble
posture next to the talkative and high-spirited Jiang. The next day,
the People's Daily put two same-sized pictures of Hu and Jiang side by
side on its front page.

As the highest-ranked Fifth-Generation
politician in the supreme Politburo Standing Committee, Xi is slated to
succeed Hu as party general secretary at the 18th CCP Congress in
October 2012 – and as state president a few months later. Yet it is
well-known among political circles in Beijing that Xi does not come
from Hu's Communist Youth League faction. Instead, the son of former
vice-premier Xi Zhongxun is the putative head of the powerful Gang of
Princelings, a reference to the offspring of party elders. Moreover, it
was partly due to support rendered by ex-president Jiang, himself a
princeling, that Xi was virtually designated Hu's heir-apparent at the
17th Party Congress in 2007. Xi's failure to be inducted into the CMC
last month, however, was a signal that he might not enjoy a cosy
relationship with his boss.

Instead, Hu is believed to be
pulling out all the stops to improve the political fortunes of Youth
League stalwarts such as Politburo Standing Committee member and First
Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who at this stage is expected to take over the
premiership from Wen Jiabao in early 2013.

Xi watchers are not
surprised by his strange demeanor in Berlin. During his tour to Latin
America early this year, the vice-president aroused controversy by
using earthy language to attack a certain country – widely thought to
be the US – for alleged interference in China's domestic affairs. While
talking to diplomats and Chinese representatives in China's embassy in
Mexico City, Xi intoned: "There are people who seem to have nothing to
do after filling their stomachs. They like to point their fingers at
China's internal affairs." The vice-president's remarks were not
reported by the Chinese media.

In any event, Xi's apparent
decision to openly side with Jiang – and his failure to appear
deferential to Hu – is a good indication that factional rivalry and
jockeying for position has begun some three years before the 18th Party
Congress. At that all-important conclave, a new corps of party and
state leadership will be picked as at least half of the current PSC and
Politburo members are set to retire.