China's new leader prepares to take the reins

 

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.

- - -

Washington Post special correspondents Wang Juan, Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?