Cagey, colourless and controlled, China’s next generation of Communist Party leaders presented themselves to the world yesterday, ending months of speculation about the back-room politicking.
Xi Jinping, who took over as Communist Party chief from President Hu Jintao, unveiled the standing committee in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People – the climax of a tense drama in which almost all the action has taken place off stage.
The reporters invited to the ceremony peered over rows of poinsettias to count the black number markers stuck on to the elevated stage: seven, for the seven members of the committee, down from the nine of five years ago. Even that number was being speculated on until then.
They marched single file in order of their rank to their places on the stage to the flash of cameras. Mr Xi led the parade, wearing a dark blue suit. The six trailing behind also wore dark blue suits, all but one set off by red or maroon ties.
Xi took to the podium and apologised for “keeping everybody waiting”, while his team stood stiffly to attention against a backdrop of a painting of a mist-covered Great Wall.
He introduced his colleagues, addressing them as “comrade”, and each stepped forward. Most gave a slight bow. Li Keqiang, ranked No 2, gave a little wave, like an awkward monarch.
“I believe their names are familiar to you,” Mr Xi, 59, the son of a revolutionary hero, told the room.
In his first address to the nation, he acknowledged the lengthy agenda for what should be the first of two five-year terms in office. He promised to deliver better social services, while making sure China stands tall in the world and the party continues to rule.
“Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the entire party and the people of all ethnic groups in China in taking over the historic baton and in making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation,” a confident Mr Xi said in nationally televised remarks.
He later said “we are not complacent, and we will never rest on our laurels” in confronting challenges – corruption chief among them.
By his side stood the six other newly appointed members of the Politburo Standing Committee: Mr Li, the presumptive premier and chief economic official; vice-premier Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan; Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, and vice-premier Wang Qishan, once the leadership’s top troubleshooter, who will head the party’s internal watchdog panel.
The line-up belied any hopes Mr Xi would usher in a leadership that would take bold steps to deal with slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy, or begin to ease the Communist Party’s iron grip on the most populous nation.
“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 Programme at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in the US.
“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.”
Vice-premier Wang, the most reform-minded in the line-up, has been given the role of fighting widespread corruption, identified by both Mr Xi and outgoing president Mr Hu as the biggest danger faced by the party and the state.
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 Communist boss of south-western Chongqing city after his wife was accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.
Mr Bo, who has not been seen in public since early this year, faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power.
One source said an informal poll had been held by more than 200 voting members in the party’s central committee to choose the seven members of the standing committee from among ten candidates. Two with strong reform credentials – Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and party organisation head Li Yuanchao – failed to make it, along with the woman candidate, Liu Yandong.
However, all three are in the 25-member Politburo, a group that ranks below the standing committee.
In the end, the seven-member leadership has an average age of 63.4 years compared with 62.1 five years ago.
Except for Mr Xi and his deputy, all the others in the standing committee – the innermost circle of power in China’s authoritarian government – are 64 or above and will have to retire within five years, when the next party congress is held. That means the party may just tread water on the most vital political reforms until then.
Many of the challenges confronting Mr Xi are legacies of his predecessor. In addition to relinquishing his role as party chief, having reached the two-term maximum, Mr Hu also stepped down from the party commission that oversees the military. The move is a break from the past, when exiting party leaders kept hold of the military portfolio for several years.
“The leadership is divided,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, adding, however, that the new leadership would find it easier to make progress on economic reform rather than on political change.
“It’s easier for them to move to a new growth model,” he said. “I think they agree upon that and that won’t be the hardest task. But I see a lot of political paralysis.”
Rights activist Hu Jia, who has been jailed for campaigning on behalf of Aids patients and orphans, said: “More and more citizens are beginning to awaken to their rights and they are constantly asking for political reform.”
He added: “The Communist Party does not have legitimacy. It is a party of dictatorship that uses violence to obtain political power. What we need now is for this country’s people to have the right to choose who they are governed by.”
Chief among the problems Xi Jinping and his team will have to tackle is the economy. Though President Hu pledged more balanced development, inequality has risen and housing costs have soared. Over the past year, the economy has flagged, dragged down by anaemic demand in Europe and the United States for Chinese products and an overhang from excessive lending for factories and infrastructure.
With state banks lending to state-run firms or not at all, private entrepreneurs have turned to unofficial moneylenders.
The World Bank says growth, which hit a three-year low of 7.4 per cent in the latest quarter, may reach 5 per cent by 2015 – a low rate for generating the employment and funding the social programmes Beijing holds as key to keeping a lid on unrest.
In foreign policy, the US and others are looking for reassurance that China’s policy remains one of peaceful integration into the world community. Tensions have flared in recent months with Japan and the Philippines over contested islets. Mistrust has also grown with the US as it diverts more military resources to Asia.
• Zhang Gaoli, 65, party chief of the northern port city of Tianjin and a Politburo member since 2007, is seen as a Jiang Zemin ally but also acceptable to President Hu, who has visited Tianjin three times since 2008. Mr Zhang is low-key with a down-to-earth work style, and not much is known about his specific interests and aspirations.
• Liu Yunshan, 65, may take over the propaganda and ideology portfolio for the standing committee. He has a background in the media, once working as a reporter for state-run news agency Xinhua. As minister of the party’s propaganda department since 2002, Mr Liu has also sought to control China’s internet, which has more than 500 million users.
• Zhang Dejiang, 65, a conservative trained in North Korea, saw his chances of promotion boosted this year when he was chosen to replace disgraced politician Bo Xilai as Chongqing party boss. He also serves as vice-premier in charge of industry, though his record has been tarnished by last year’s downfall of the railway minister over corruption.
• Xi Jinping, 59, is China’s vice-president and President Hu Jintao’s anointed successor. He is considered a cautious reformer and belongs to the party’s “princeling” generation, the offspring of Communist revolutionaries. His father, former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, fought alongside Mao Zedong in the Chinese civil war.
• Li Keqiang, 57, vice-premier, is seen as another cautious reformer, due to his relatively liberal university experiences. He is the man tipped to be China’s next premier, taking over from Wen Jiabao. His ascent marks an extraordinary rise for a man who, as a youth, was sent to rural toil during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Born in Anhui province in 1955, the son of a local rural official, Mr Li worked on a commune that was one of the first places to quietly revive private bonuses in farming in the late 1970s.
• Yu Zhengsheng, 67, is party boss in China’s financial hub and most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai. His impeccable Communist pedigree made him a rising star in the mid-1980s until his brother, an intelligence official, defected to the United States. His close ties with Deng Pufang, the eldest son of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, spared him the full political repercussions, but he was taken off the fast track. Mr Yu bided his time in ministerial ranks, joining the Politburo in 2002.
• Wang Qishan, 64, is the most junior of four vice-premiers and an ex-mayor of Beijing. But he has a keen grasp of complex economic issues and is the only member of the standing committee to have been chief executive of a corporation, leading the state-owned China Construction Bank from 1994 to 1997. Mr Wang is likely to lead the fight against corruption, a top priority in the world’s second-biggest economy, following his appointment to a key council at the end of the party’s 18th congress.