China unveils new leadership headed by Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping
Edward Wong

Completing only its second orderly handover of power in more than six decades of rule, the Chinese Communist Party on Thursday unveiled a new leadership slate headed by Xi Jinping, the son of a revered revolutionary leader and economic reformer, who will face the task of guiding China to a more sustainable model of growth and managing the country's rise as a global power.

For this nation of 1.3 billion, the transition culminates a tumultuous period plagued by scandals and intense political rivalry that presented the party with some of its greatest challenges since the student uprising of 1989. Minutes before noon on Thursday, after a confirmation vote by the party's new Central Committee, Xi, 59, strode onto a red-carpeted stage at the Great Hall of the People accompanied by six other party officials who will form the new Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group that makes crucial decisions on the economy, foreign policy and other major issues. Before their appearance, the new line-up was announced by Xinhua, the state news agency.

"We have every reason to be proud — proud, but not complacent," said Xi, looking relaxed in a dark suit and a wine-red tie. "Inside the party, there are many problems that need be addressed, especially the problems among party members and officials of corruption and taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy, and other issues." He added, "To forge iron, one must be strong."

The ascension of Xi and other members of the "red nobility" to the top posts means that the so-called princelings have come into their own as a prominent political force. Because of their parentage, they believe themselves to be the heirs of the revolution that succeeded in 1949, endowed with the mandate of authority that that status confers.

"I think the emphasis is on continuity over change this time around," said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.

Xi is facing a growing chorus of calls from Chinese elites to support greater openness in China's economic and political systems, which critics say have stagnated in the last decade under the departing party chief, Hu Jintao, despite the country's emergence as the world's second-largest economy and a growing regional power.

Hu, 69, also turned over the post of civilian chairman of the military on Thursday to Xi, which made this transition the first time since the promotion of the ill-fated Hua Guofeng in 1976 that a Chinese leader had taken office as head of the party and the military at the same time. That gives Xi a stronger base from which to consolidate his power, even as he grapples with the continuing influence of party elders.

The unveiling came the day after the week-long 18th Party Congress ended as Hu made his final appearance as party chief at a closing ceremony and seven standing committee members stepped down.

Xi is known for shunning the spotlight and being a skilled consensus builder. He spent his childhood in the leadership compounds of Beijing, but was forced to toil in a village of cave homes in Shaanxi Province for seven years during the Cultural Revolution, when his father was purged.

His first job was as an aide to a top general in Beijing. He then rose through the party ranks in the provinces, including Fujian and Zhejiang, two coastal regions known for private entrepreneurship and exchanges with Taiwan. Xi's jobs and family background have allowed him to build personal ties to some military leaders. He is married to a celebrity singer, Peng Liyuan, and they have a daughter attending Harvard under a pseudonym.

The committee was trimmed to seven members from nine. One reason for that change is that some party leaders, including Xi, believe that an over-representation of interests on the committee has led to gridlock in decision-making. The smaller committee has also resulted in a downgrading of the party post that controls the security apparatus, which some officials asserted had grown too powerful.

The new standing committee has allies of Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin in five of seven seats, reflecting his considerable power despite being hit by serious illness. Li Keqiang, a protégé of Hu's, is expected to get the state title of prime minister next spring, when Xi becomes president. Li and Xi were the only members on the departing standing committee who are remaining part of the group.

The other officials on the new committee in order of ranking and their expected portfolios are Zhang Dejiang, head of the National People's Congress; Yu Zhengsheng, who will run a similar advisory body; Liu Yunshan, vice president and overseer of propaganda; Wang Qishan, the head of an anti-corruption agency; and Zhang Gaoli, the executive vice premier, who helps manage the economy.

One princeling said earlier to be a contender for the committee, Bo Xilai, was felled last spring by a scandal after his wife was accused of killing a British businessman.

The line-up is stocked with conservatives and older officials. An unspoken age limit for party leaders means that several of them will retire at the next party congress, in 2017, at which point Xi might have an opening to get other allies appointed.

"These people around Xi Jinping who advise him and with whom he's close, they do want reform, but on the condition that they maintain the rule of the Communist Party," said Zhang Lifan, a historian and son of a former minister. "They consider the Communist Party and its rule a heritage from their fathers. So they're not willing to risk losing it. They have limitations on how far they want reform to go."

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