China identifies Xi Jinping as the next party leader

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The men who will next rule China, the world's most heavily-populated country and emerging economic powerhouse, strode stiffly in identical dark blue suits onto a flower-lined stage.

We know nothing of the decision-making process at a week-long Communist Party congress that anointed them as likely successors to President Hu Jintao, and a place among the most powerful leaders on earth. Decisions in Beijing in coming years will have major repercussions in Britain as the global economy becomes more networked.

Their appointment to a new-look Politburo Standing Committee gives a first glimpse of China's ruling elite, and valuable clues as to who will hold the reins when Hu steps down in 2012.

It was a line-up not unlike a beauty pageant. First following Hu onto the podium yesterday were the existing members of the committee – Wu Bangguo, Wen Jiabao, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun. Next up came the new members – Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang.

All eyes are on two of the men as they are seen as potential successors for the top jobs – Xi Jinping, 54, party secretary from Shanghai, and Li Keqiang, 52, party secretary from Liaoning. No women were in the line-up.

Just as in imperial times, these public displays are laden with symbolic value, and every gesture is studied for significance.

Mr Hu specified their ages when introducing them, marking them out as the next generation.

Mr Xi, one of the "princelings" – the communist equivalent of bluebloods, emerged ahead of Mr Li, suggesting that he may be in line to assume the top position of president and party boss. Mr Li could take on the less powerful position of premier.

Their incorporation onto the Standing Committee marks the ascendancy of the fifth generation of leaders since Chairman Mao Zedong. While the current leadership is made up almost exclusively of engineers, the next generation will have a more market-friendly aspect – Mr Xi is a doctor of law, while Mr Li is a doctor of economics.

While the 17th congress was big on public displays of activity, most activity took place behind closed doors. However, the message that emerged was that China's rulers plan to provide more of the same and answer growing calls for greater accountability and more openness with tweaks to the existing system rather than any fundamental changes.

The hammer and sickle loomed large over much of the proceedings and on the coverage, and that is unlikely to change much in coming years, even if the theoretical focus has switched from Marxist-Leninism to "socialism with Chinese characteristics", or the pragmatic form of communism espoused by the 73 million member party.

Rather than addressing the issue of introducing more democracy and other reforms, the party renewed its pledges to crack down on rampant corruption and to do more to narrow the widening wealth gap.

The outcome shows that, five years into the job, Mr Hu has the support of his colleagues. The fact he has been able to shape the Politburo in his image while avoiding any internal wrangles is a credit to his position as peacemaker among cadres, juggling the demands of reformers and conservatives alike.

He has shown himself to be an economic reformer but tough in clamping down on political dissent.

The Congress did much to get rid of the influence of former leader Jiang Zemin. A very public sign was when Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, an ally of Mr Jiang, stepped down from the Central Committee.

One middle-aged service industry worker reading the Beijing Youth Daily in Ritan Park said he was happy with the congress. "I'm very satisfied with changes in Chinese society in the last 10 years, particularly when it comes to politics. Nowadays people are more focused on the economy rather than politics," he said.

The four new members of the Politburo

* ZHOU YONGKANG Zhou Yongkang, 64, is the Minister of Public Security. He is a fitness fanatic, as well as a geological engineer like Premier Wen Jiabao. As police minister, putting him in the Politburo could be seen as a sign of a tougher line on dissent, as he was a tough police chief in Sichuan province. He was photographed doing strenuous exercises earlier this year. That was read as a sign of intent.

* LI KEQIANG

Li Keqiang, the 52-year-old party head of the rust-belt factory province of Liaoning, is a protégé of President Hu Jintao and hails from the immensely influential Communist Youth League, Mr Hu's main power base. He studied law at the elite Peking University after the Cultural Revolution. He became party leader in Henan in 1998, where he earned kudos for dealing with the Aids crisis created by tainted blood transfusions. In 2004 he moved to Liaoning where he lured firms like Intel and BMW to replace the crumbling state-owned industries.

* XI JINPING

Married to a famous singer, the 54-year-old party chief in China's commercial megalopolis Shanghai is the son of a veteran revolutionary and guerrilla leader, and therefore one of the 'princelings' of the party's political dynasties. He earned his stripes when he dealt with a smuggling scandal in the southern Fujian province and presided over strong growth in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Took over in Shanghai this year after his predecessor Chen Liangyu was felled in a corruption scandal. His performance there will decide his political future.

* HE GUOQIANG

The official in charge of personnel, his role in the Organisation Department is largely vetting candidates for appointments and promotions. A chemical engineer from Hunan, he succeeds Zeng Qinghong, his political sponsor and number five in the Party, who has since stepped down from the committee. He has survived a number of corruption scandals on his patch in Chongqing and Fujian.

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