President Hu Jintao gave his final speech as head of China's Communist Party on Wednesday, paving the way for a new generation of leaders that will be unveiled Thursday morning.
The new leadership lineup — a once-a-decade occurrence — will end months of internal rivalry, secrecy and speculation and will determine the country's future at a time of economic worries, increased regional tensions and widespread clamor for reform.
Vice President Xi Jinping — the 59-year-old son of a famed Communist revolutionary general — is expected to take over the party's top position, general secretary, on Thursday from Hu Jintao, who remains president until March. But it is unknown what direction Xi and the other new leaders will take.
While waiting in the wings for the past five years, Xi has carefully avoided giving any hint of his priorities, keeping strictly neutral to avoid endangering his status as heir among the party's competing factions.
Any changes to the system envisioned by Xi likely will be constrained by several older party leaders considered more conservative in outlook that many believe will be named Thursday to the Politburo Standing Committee, the body that effectively runs the country and is expected to shrink from nine to seven seats.
The transition is not likely to dramatically change China's relations with the United States. Xi was long known as the heir apparent, and the Obama administration began cultivating ties with him, including sending Vice President Joe Biden on a lengthy trip here in 2011, where Xi played host in Beijing and Sichuan province in the Southwest. Xi made a reciprocal trip to the United States earlier this year with Biden as his host, and they attended a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game.
But in coming months as Xi consolidates his power, military tensions likely will remain high as the United States continues its policy of rebalancing toward Asia and shoring up its alliances with countries surrounding China. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a weeklong Asia trip that will take him to Thailand, Cambodia and Australia, where the United States has been expanding military cooperation and establishing a new base in the Northern coastal city of Darwin.
And later this month, President Barack Obama will travel to Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, the latter stop symbolically important as the United States and China are seen as rivals for influence in that strategically located Southeast Asian country.
This year's leadership transition is China's first in a decade, and only its second without chaos or bloodshed. The first real orderly transition was in 2002, when Jiang Zemin stepped down in favor of Hu. Hu and Jiang were handpicked for leadership from relative obscurity in the aftermath of the bloody 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.
One thing made clear amid the past week of ceremonial pomp here in Beijing is how thoroughly the aging Jiang has continued to dominate China's leadership, appearing publicly at the opening of the congress and pushing his allies into key positions at the expense of Hu and other Party grandees. According to early rumors, most of the seven Standing Committee seats will be filled by officials associated with Jiang. And several contenders who lost out were known for their more reformist views and their ties to Hu.
Jiang's influence was profound for an 86-year-old who stepped down as general secretary in 2002, and relinquished his last official title, chairman of the Central Military Commission that runs the army, in 2004. Just last year, Jiang was taken to the hospital and reported to be so gravely ill that some news outlets in Hong Kong erroneously reported he had died.
By contrast Hu may be left with only one clear ally in the new Standing Committee: Li Keqiang, who is expected to take Wen Jiaobao's place as China's next premier and the point man in charge of China's economy. Like Hu, Li rose through the ranks from his position in the Communist Youth League, which has emerged as a rival power center to Jiang as well as emerging though disparate group of "princelings" — children of old Mao Zedong-era revolutionaries.
"We can see Jiang Zemin still has influence over the personnel arrangements and he's wielded quite a big influence over it," said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a Hong Kong-based political analyst.
Hu also may cede his chairmanship over the military to Xi, which would be seen as further proof Hu has lost much of his fight to preserve influence.
The new leadership takes over amid heightened anxiety within the party and in society at large.
After three decades of double-digit growth, China's juggernaut economy is slowing down. The income gap between the country's new rich and the poor continues to grow. Widespread corruption has angered citizens and brought scrutiny to several top leaders. Protests and labor unrest have become almost daily occurrences. And an increasingly urban and Internet-wired population has grown more demanding of government accountability, cleaner air and better services.
Many current and former officials also have become more concerned, saying the 91-year-old Communist Party is in dire need of reform.
Even the way this transition was carried out was emblematic of the party's increasingly anachronistic ways. In an age of social media and rising expectations of transparency, a relatively tiny handful of current party leaders and retired septuagenarians and octogenarians met secretly over months in closed-door bargaining sessions to hash out the new Standing Committee. Meanwhile. China's 1.3 billion citizens are kept in the dark until the moment the appointed seven walk onto the stage at the Great Hall of the People for a choreographed photo-op.
In perhaps a nod to the imperative to change, the party's decision to shrink the Standing Committee from nine seats to seven was seen as a way to streamline decision making and make it easier to reach consensus. Also, some experts believe China's mounting problems may give Xi early momentum to push through some economic reforms, although he likely will still encounter strong resistance, especially from vested interests like the hide-bound state-owned enterprises that hold monopolies over several lucrative industries.
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Washington Post special correspondents Wang Juan, Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.Reuse content