Three ambulances with full resuscitation equipment stood outside in the autumn sunshine as Mr Jiang opened the 14th Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People, but they were not required by the ageing leadership. The most prominent of them, Deng Xiaoping, failed to appear, but his daughter, Deng Nan, hastened to assure the public that her father was 'hale and hearty'.
Hopes that China's supreme leader might attend were raised by the announcement that the 88-year-old Mr Deng, who holds no formal office, had been invited as a special delegate. As the Communist hierarchy strode or were helped on to the podium, there was audible disappointment among the nearly 2,000 delegates at his absence.
The rarely-seen 'Little Emperor' was cited 12 times, however, in Mr Jiang's 10,000-word address. His theory of 'building socialism with Chinese characteristics' was a 'magic weapon guaranteeing that our party will always be vigorous'. The general secretary quoted extensively from Mr Deng's comments during his tour of special enterprise zones earlier this year, which was aimed at speeding up economic liberalisation, but asserted that their 'great achievements' were 'socialist, not capitalist, in nature'.
The economy dominated the speech, reflecting his mentor's belief that the party's success in creating prosperity for China's 1.2 billion people is essential to its survival. As the 66-year-old Mr Jiang put it, 'If we fail to achieve economic growth, any effort to consolidate unity and stability would be out of the question.'
Arguing that market forces must be given full play, Mr Jiang called for the establishment of 'a socialist market economy'. But he made it clear that it would remain under state control: the public sector would remain predominant, with the private sector 'as a supplement'.
The speech was more specific on the reduction of state interference in the economy. Among '10 major tasks' listed by Mr Jiang for the next five years were reforming loss-making state enterprises by pushing them into the market, opening more areas up to foreign trade and investment, and removing impediments to the development of markets, including those for stocks and bonds. He set a relatively conservative economic growth target of 8 or 9 per cent for this year.
Essentially the leadership's approach is pragmatic. While proclaiming that socialism was bound to replace capitalism, Mr Jiang warned: 'We must . . . not get bogged down in an abstract debate over what is socialist and what is capitalist.' This paraphrased Mr Deng's famous remark that 'it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice'.
The general secretary was unambiguous, however, in ruling out any political relaxation. The party retained its leading role: the goal of reform was 'absolutely not a Western, multi-party parliamentary system'. He devoted one paragraph to the 1989 pro-democracy movement, calling it a 'political disturbance', and praised the army, which killed at least 800 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, as 'the strong shield of the people's democratic dictatorship, a great wall of steel protecting the socialist motherland'.
The loudest applause for the speech came when the general secretary condemned corruption at the highest levels in the party. Leading cadres and their families should set the example, he said, in a clear reference to the 'princes and princesses' - sons and daughters of high officials whose privileges and lavish lifestyles have attracted bitter criticism.