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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP & MVC Frameworks

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing company in Belvedere ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior PHP Developer

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking to work in a sm...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders