By Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - One of Mao Zedong's anointed successors was ousted and hounded by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Another died in a mysterious plane crash.
Deng Xiaoping wrested control of China from a third Mao successor, then proceeded to depose of his own chosen protege, Zhao Ziyang, after he expressed sympathy with the students demanding democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Succession politics in China has long been a dangerous business and with former president Jiang Zemin in deteriorating health, China watchers are asking how his death could alter the next handover of power in 2012.
The likely answer is very little.
President Hu Jintao is preparing to retire and hand over the top job in the Communist Party to Vice President Xi Jinping next autumn, and the presidency in 2013.
But compared with the chaotic days of Mao, China's leadership transitions are now much more orderly. Jiang himself set the precedent of adhering to the retirement age when he stepped down first as Party chief and then as president, in 2002 and 2003 respectively, taking several aging leaders with him.
Barring a spectacular misstep, or mishap, Xi will become party chief as expected in 2012, whether or not Jiang survives.
"Xi's succession has already become an institutional decision," said Wang Zhengxu, senior research fellow at Nottingham University's China Policy Institute in Britain.
"Hu Jintao is happy and willing to install Xi as the next top leader and Xi has not been close to Jiang's people. The challenge will be whether Xi has built a strong enough network in the past three years," he said.
Arcane and murky, China's process to determine who will get to run the world's second largest economy, presiding over everything from currency reform to military modernization, will be closely watched by foreign investors, diplomats, bankers, lawyers and politicians alike.
But gone are the days when China was ruled by octogenarians, or when a powerful leader was able to rule, as Deng did, from "behind the curtain" despite holding no formal political title.
The game for a retired leader like Jiang -- and soon Hu -- is one of exercising subtle, if fading, influence.
"The structure is already in place, but some details will be a bit different," said Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore.
But because China decides the fate of its new leaders behind closed doors in secret Communist Party meetings, any hint of uncertainty can spark an explosion in speculation, ensuring any leadership transition will not unfold without some drama. Jiang's health provided the necessary fodder last week.
China on Thursday was forced to deny pervasive rumors and even two reports in the overseas media that Jiang had died. Sources told Reuters that Jiang had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.
His ill-health had been widely speculated on in diplomatic circles in Beijing, and his non-appearance at the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party's on July 1 while other former leaders showed up in force fed the rumor-mill.
CASTING A LONG SHADOW
When Jiang retired, it was said that everywhere Hu looked he would see the supporters of his predecessor.
Jiang had stacked China's most powerful leadership body, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, with his own protégées, many of them from the so-called "Shanghai Gang."
But in the years since Jiang retired his final post, the military commission chairmanship in 2004, Hu consolidated his grip, neutralized the Shanghai Gang and successfully anointed Xi as a successor.
With the dramatic dismissal for corruption in 2006 of Shanghai's Communist Party boss, Chen Liangyu, Hu was not only serving notice that he was in charge, he was writing the obituary for the Shanghai Gang, loved for its track record on economic growth yet loathed for its monopoly on political power.
Still, Jiang's influence was apparent at the last Communist Party Congress in 2007. Xi was not necessarily Hu's first choice as China's next party chief and president, but he did get anointed with Jiang's blessing.
"Hu Jintao was inclined to promote Li Keqiang as head of the party," said Jean Pierre Cabestan, a professor who specializes on Chinese politics at Hong Kong's Baptist University. Vice Premier Li is tipped to take over as premier from Wen Jiabao in the leadership succession.
Hu also was unable to force out Jiang ally Jia Qinglin, the Party's nominal number four. Other Jiang supporters retain their seats on the Standing Committee, including the head of the largely rubber stamp parliament Wu Bangguo, and propaganda chief Li Changchun.
Where Hu failed in removing Jiang's allies, time will succeed: Jia, Wu and Li Changchun are or will soon be past the cutoff age of 68 for retirement and will have to step down.
"Today the line up of the next leadership is more or less decided," Cabestan added. "What has not been decided -- in any event I don't think Jiang Zemin would have any real impact -- is who's going to take over from Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun."
Out of Jiang's shadow, Hu will have greater power in these appointment discussions, and also have a greater opportunity to influence the lineup of the next generation of leaders, the ones due to assume power after Xi leaves the scene around 2022.
Chinese leaders also can leave their mark through having their theories enshrined in the Communist Party history books. Mao and Deng had many, and Jiang's theory, the curiously named Three Represents, which allowed capitalists to join the party, was written into the Constitution.
Hu could seek similar status with his own policy, the Harmonious Society, which seeks to rectify the imbalances between rich and poor that came with the country's rapid economic development.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Miral Fahmy)