China unveils new faces but old policies as Xi takes over party and military

Pledge to tackle official corruption from new chief but ex-leader Jiang Zemin's influence brings in conservative politburo

China unveiled its new leader on Thursday as Xi Jinping gained control of both the Communist party and the military for the next decade, with a speech and team of colleagues that gave no hint of a change in the country's course.

It was only the second orderly transition since the founding of the People's Republic by revolutionaries, who included Xi's father. But the handover has been preceded by months of turbulence and sharp-elbowed political manoeuvring for places on the top political body.

Former leader Jiang Zemin's influence seems to have produced a broadly conservative politburo standing committee, disappointing those who had been pressing for reforms. But Xi has 10 years ahead of him and some think his confidence and connections; his control over the military; the reduction of the committee from nine to seven seats; and the press of events might yet result in bolder decisions than seen under his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Though Xi's ascension was signalled five years ago, the public saw its full new leadership for the first time as the men in dark suits filed on to a red-carpeted platform in front of international media, under the glittering chandeliers of the Great Hall of the People.

Chinese politics employs both spectacle and concealment: the demonstration of power – via the grandeur of the newly concluded party congress and the crush of journalists vying for shots on Thursday – yet the obfuscation of its workings.

"They actually operate in a way to deify the power … if you get to see how they talk and discuss things, it reduces the mystery of power," said Wang Zhengxu, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham. "But they also want to communicate to the public that the central committee and its politburo are making decisions according to rules for the benefit of the public."

No one can be sure what Xi stands for, still less what he will achieve as the first among equals. The scarcity of hard facts have also led to analysts noting, albeit mostly with tongues in cheeks, the relative size of chairs at the congress and the decision of one new leader to wear a blue rather than red tie.

Xi, 59, gave a confident, relaxed performance as he introduced his colleagues. Li Keqiang, who will replace Wen Jiabao as premier, has already served one term on the committee with Xi.

New arrivals include conservative figures such as Zhang Dejiang, who trained in economics in North Korea, and propaganda official Liu Yunshan.

The other members are Yu Zhensheng, party chief in Shanghai; Zhang Gaoli, in charge of Tianjin; and Wang Qishan, who has taken the discipline portfolio. That move has been variously interpreted as a sign that the party will get tough on abuses or an attempt to ensure his financial expertise does not overshadow Li.

The group is entirely male, although the number of women on the broader 25-member politburo doubled – to two. The Fujian party secretary, Sun Chunlan, has joined Liu Yandong. Two leaders seen as more sympathetic to reform, Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang and organisation department head Li Yuanchao, failed to reach the standing committee. But experts note that members seen as socially and politically conservative may still be open to financial modernisation and some economic reforms.

Kerry Brown, of the University of Sydney, said the composition meant increased power for Xi within a "dual-core leadership" with Li Keqiang, describing their new colleagues as "not particularly disruptive". All are older figures who would normally retire after one five-year term.

But Zhang Jian, a political scientist at Peking University, argued: "I don't think the other five guys will just sit there … I expect to see perhaps a little bit more paralysis."

Xi sought to reach beyond the party to the public with a relatively conversational speech. After the scandal over former politburo member Bo Xilai – now facing prosecution following his wife's conviction for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood – it was perhaps inevitable he would have to address official abuses and growing public cynicism. "Inside the party there are problems that need to be addressed, especially the problems of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucratism, which must be addressed by great efforts," he pledged.

But there was no hint of a new approach to tackling the problems.

"It was powerful, down-to-earth, authoritative, and calm. He did not have empty conventional talk," said Li Weidong, a Beijing-based political commentator.

"I don't have any expectation of political reform. However, I have hopes of them improving normal people's lives, reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, and solving the problems that normal people are demanding [answers to] now."

Xi said people yearned "for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and healthcare, and more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment". Zhang Jian noted: "He carefully did not mention people wanting more decisions in their own lives."

Xi is not only the "princeling" son of a venerated revolutionary figure, Xi Zhongxun, but enjoys strong party and military connections across the party and with the military thanks to his previous roles.

Hu waited two years to take over chairmanship of the central military commission from Jiang after becoming the party's leader, but Xi has already claimed the position.

His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a famous singer. They have one daughter, currently studying at Harvard.


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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