China's new men of iron take over

Media-friendly and charming, but Xi Jinping has already bolstered his hardline regime by taking control of the army

Beijing

Xi Jinping looked very much at ease as he walked out on the stage in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, leading the slimmed-down Standing Committee of the Politburo chosen to steer the planet's most populous nation through ever more treacherous waters.

In a speech steeped in communist rhetoric, Mr Xi struck a combative tone while describing how the party would deal with the problems facing the world's second-biggest economy.

"To be turned into iron, the metal must itself be strong," Mr Xi said, shortly after he had been officially named as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at a carefully stage-managed ceremony yesterday capping the week-long Congress.

Mr Xi is much more relaxed in front of the media than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, with a reputation of being tough but charming.

His confidence in part stems from the fact that his mandate to rule the 82 million-member organisation appears solid. Mr Xi has also taken immediate control of the People's Liberation Army. Combined with the streamlined Standing Committee – the innermost circle of power in China's authoritarian government, which has been cut to seven from nine members – he is in an unusually strong position.

He takes over the fifth generation of leadership of the party from Mr Hu, and will assume the presidency in March at the annual parliament.

Mr Hu and his Premier, Wen Jiabao, spent much of their decade in power trying to appease Mr Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin, who did not relinquish his position as head of the military until two years into the Hu/Wen administration. Mr Xi will be able to rule unimpeded, without constantly looking over his shoulder.

"Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the whole Party and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups to take up the baton passed on by history, to continue to liberate our way of thinking, and to carry on reform and opening up," Mr Xi said. "Our people have an ardent love for life. They wish to have better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and healthcare, improved housing conditions, and a better environment."

The other six members of the Standing Committee named yesterday were Li Keqiang, who will later assume the premiership from Wen Jiabao; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng; Propaganda Minister Liu Yunshan; Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who will also head the anti-corruption panel; and Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli.

Mr Xi and his colleagues face a number of challenges heading into office, including a need to keep economic growth ticking over, cutting a yawning wealth gap between rich and poor, combating rampant corruption in the party ranks and easing tensions with neighbouring Japan over disputed islands.

Then there is the Bo Xilai problem. The background to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition has been the biggest threat to the stability of the party since the 1989 crackdown on democracy activists – the purging of Chongqing party boss and one-time rising star Bo from the Politburo in April. Mr Bo's wife was convicted in August of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and Mr Bo –once a strong contender for the Standing Committee – was expelled from the party. He faces trial for alleged corruption and abuse of power, something Mr Xi will be forced to deal with early in his administration.

There were some surprise omissions from the Standing Committee, including two reformist protégés of Hu Jintao: party organisation head Li Yuanchao, and Guangdong party chief Wang Yang.

Both were opposed by conservative, anti-Hu elements but are considered young enough to have another shot.

Online responses were generally positive, although censorship of the internet has been so intense in the weeks running up to the Congress that it is unclear if the remarks were representative. One posting on the Chinese, Twitter-style service Weibo said: "Greetings President Xi, we are farmers and workers from Sichuan, and we hope our incomes improve." Other users called for punishment for corrupt officials – one of the crucial tasks facing an administration that will come to power under the shadow of the Bo Xilai scandal.

The chosen ones: Who's who in the party machine

Xi Jinping, 59

Until now, his wife – the folk singer Peng Liyuan – was probably more famous than him. But not for much longer. The son of veteran revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping has been given a strong mandate as General Secretary of the Communist Party and head of the Central Military Commission. A native of the poor, dusty province of Shaanxi, he was raised in privileged circumstances in Beijing as a "princeling" before his father, who was Deputy Prime Minister, fell out of favour with Mao Zedong and was banished with his family to the countryside to learn peasant virtues. Mr Xi was forced to swap a comfortable life in the city for sleeping on bricks in a cave. He went on to study chemical engineering and later gained a degree in Marxist theory and a doctorate in law. His career included stints as provincial party chief in Hebei and the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, which allowed him to witness at close quarters economic reform in action. He cemented his reputation as a graft-buster in Shanghai in 2007 when he became party boss after predecessor, Chen Liangyu, was felled in a corruption scandal. He is widely seen as a compromise candidate bridging the party's factions.

Li Keqiang, 57

The current Vice Premier, Mr Li is expected to take over as Premier from Wen Jiabao in March. The son of a local cadre, he rose to prominence after studying law at Peking University. During the crackdown on the student-led democracy movement in 1989, he was involved in trying to mend ties between the Communist Youth League and student protesters.

Zhang Dejiang, 65

He succeeded the disgraced Bo Xilai as party chief in Chongqing. He studied economics in North Korea at Kim Il-sung University and was previously vice premier of the State Council. It's not all been highs for Mr Zhang: he was implicated in efforts to conceal the Sars epidemic during a spell in government in Guangdong province.

Yu Zhengsheng, 67

Party boss in China's financial hub, Shanghai. He survived the defection of his brother to the US in the mid-1980s and joined the Politburo in 2002. Another "princeling" with close ties to both former President Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he also has links to the late Deng Xiaoping's family through Deng's son, Deng Pufang.

Liu Yunshan, 65

Heads the propaganda and ideology portfolio for the Standing Committee, and once worked as a Xinhua news agency reporter. He also spent time banished to the countryside in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. He will be closely watched to see if he steps up control of the internet.

Wang Qishan, 64

Yet another princeling and ex-mayor of Beijing, Mr Wang has previously worked in the financial sector as head of the state-owned China Construction Bank and has been elected to lead the fight against corruption. Some say this is because he has no children who could benefit from his position.

Zhang Gaoli, 65

Party chief of the northern port city of Tianjin, where he worked to transform the city. A Politburo member since 2007 and seen as a Jiang Zemin ally, but also acceptable to Hu Jintao. A trained economist, he has been party chief and governor of eastern Shandong province and vice governor of Guangdong.

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