State media says Xi Jinping is to take the reins of China’s all-powerful Communist Party in a leadership transition that will put him in charge of the world’s number-two economy for the next decade.
Xi, the current vice president and successor to President Hu Jintao, assumes power at an uncertain time with the party facing urgent calls to clean its ranks of corruption and overhaul its economic model as growth stutters.
His long-expected ascension as head of the ruling party took place at 0400 GMT along with the unveiling of a new Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top decision-making body.
According to tradition, the members marched out before the media in a pecking order agreed after years of factional bargaining, a process which intensified in the months leading up to the five-yearly reshuffle.
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Xi will consolidate his position at the apex of national politics by being named China’s president by the rubber-stamp legislature next March, for a tenure expected to last through two five-year terms.
The standing committee, which had nine members under Hu has been slimmed to seven and includes Vice Premier Li Keqiang, which would set him on the path to be be appointed premier from next March.
Other members include Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.
They will be tasked with addressing a rare deceleration of economic growth that threatens the party’s key claim to legitimacy – continually improving the livelihoods of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
China also bubbles with localised unrest often sparked by public rage at corruption, government abuses, and the myriad manifestations of anger among the millions left out of the country’s economic boom.
The communists have a monopoly on political power in China and state appointments are decided within the party.
The process began with behind-the-scenes horse-trading and political deals.
It was essentially finalised on Wednesday when the party ended a week-long congress by announcing a new Central Committee of 205 people.
On Thursday, the Central Committee approved the higher leadership bodies, including the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
Observers believe two main factions have been jockeying for power, one centred largely on proteges of former president Jiang Zemin and another linked to allies of Hu.
Xi is considered a consensus figure who leans toward Jiang, while Li has long been seen as a Hu protege.
Analysts say that despite rivalries between the two camps which are largely divided on patronage lines, they broadly agree China must realign its economy away from a dependence on exports, while maintaining a firm hand on dissent.
The government has ramped up security in Beijing and on the nation’s popular social media sites to prevent any criticism during the gathering.
The run-up to this year’s congress was unsettled by events surrounding Bo Xilai, a political star seen as a candidate for a top post until a scandal in which his wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman.
The sensational affair torpedoed Bo’s political career, he will face trial for charges of corruption and abuse of power, and added to the intrigue in the run-up to the transition.
: China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping won a strong mandate on Thursday to lead the world’s second-biggest economy and deal with problems ranging from corruption to economic uncertainty.
Xi was appointed head of both the ruling Communist Party and its top military body as the ruling Communist Party unveiled a new leadership line-up consisting of conservatives and respected financial reformers.
In an address at the end of the party’s once-in-five years congress, Xi said he understood the people’s desire for a better life but warned of severe challenges going forward.
“Our party is dedicated to serving the people,” he said after introducing the other six members of the standing committee at the Great Hall of the People in a carefully choreographed ceremony carried live on state television.
“It has led the people in making world-renowned achievements, and we have every reason to take pride in these achievements,” he added, speaking in perfect Mandarin.
“But we are not complacent, and we will never rest on our laurels. Under the new conditions, our party faces many severe challenges, and there are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism caused by some party officials.”
The run-up to the handover has been overshadowed by the party’s biggest scandal in decades, with former high-flyer Bo Xilai sacked as party boss of the southwestern Chongqing city after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.
Xi will be steering China for at least the next five years with a mixed team, including the urbane, English-speaking anointed next premier Li Keqiang, and North Korea-trained economist Zhang Dejiang.
That could make undertaking the kind of reforms China so desperately needs, whether financial or social, much harder. Two senior leaders with strong reform credentials — Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and party organisation head Li Yuanchao — did not make it to the standing committee, the party’s premier body.
And Wang Qishan, 64, currently the vice-premier in charge of economic affairs, will take over the graft-fighting role, rather than having anything to do with financial affairs.
“The leadership is divided,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It’s easier for them to move to a new growth model. I think they agree upon that and that won’t be the hardest task. But I see a lot of political paralysis in terms of changing the political system.”
Cut to seven
Still, the standing committee – the innermost circle of power in China’s authoritarian government – has as expected been cut to seven members from nine, which should ease consensus building and decision making.
Zhang is expected to head the largely rubber-stamp parliament, while Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng is likely to head parliament’s advisory body, according to the order in which their names were announced.
Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli and Liu Yunshan, a conservative who has kept domestic media on a tight leash, make up the rest of the group.
Xi will take over Hu’s state position in March at the annual meeting of parliament, when Li will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao.
Despite the problems ahead, Xi will at least not have to worry about Hu looking too much over his shoulder.
Hu has not followed his predecessor Jiang Zemin in staying on as head of the military commission after stepping down as party chief. Xi has instead directly taken over that post, strengthening his position.
Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.
With growing public anger and unrest over everything from corruption to environmental degradation, there may also be cautious efforts to answer calls for more political reform, though nobody seriously expects a move towards full democracy.
The party could introduce experimental measures to broaden inner-party democracy – in other words, encouraging greater debate within the party – but stability remains a top concern and one-party rule will be safeguarded.
“We’re not going to see any political reform because too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“They see it entirely through the prism of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions in Central Asia, so they’re not going to go there.”