Xi Jinping takes reins of Communist party and Chinese military

'Princeling' gives confident performance as he introduces conservative team to media

Xi Jinping took the reins of both the Communist party and the military in China on Thursday morning, before introducing the broadly conservative team who will lead the country with him.

The presentation of the seven men in dark suits, at a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, offered little encouragement to the growing numbers pressing for economic, social and particularly political reforms in China.

It was only the second orderly transition in the more than six decades since the founding of the People's Republic by revolutionaries including Xi's father. But it has been preceded by months of turbulence and sharp-elbowed political manoeuvrings.

After five years as heir apparent, 59-year-old Xi gave a confident performance as he introduced his colleagues to the waiting media. The message was one of a clean start, with the outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, giving up the chairmanship of the central military commission immediately; his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, took two years to do so.

Xi will be first among equals in the top decision-making body. Li Keqiang, who will replace Wen Jiabao as premier, has already served one term on the committee with him.

It has been cut from nine members to seven, apparently to make decision-making more effective.

Some think that may prove harder than expected because Jiang's influence has helped to win more places than expected for his proteges. But others say it is hard to draw a straight line between personal networks and policy choices or even between an individual's approach to different areas of policy; some of the new members are seen as financial modernisers even if politically conservative.

The new body includes conservative figures such as Zhang Dejiang, who trained in economics in North Korea, and the propaganda official Liu Yunshan.

The other members are Yu Zhensheng, party chief in Jiang's stronghold of 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 after years of promising to do so or an attempt to ensure his financial expertise does not lead to him overshadowing Li when the latter becomes premier.

Crucially, two leaders seen as more sympathetic to reform, the Guangdong party secretary, Wang Yang, and organisation department head, Li Yuanchao, failed to reach the top body.

Zhang Gaoli was impassive as he surveyed the audience from the red-carpeted platform, but other leaders smiled as Xi introduced them during the session, which lasted less than 20 minutes. All wore dark red ties bar Wang, who sported a blue tie.

Kerry Brown of the University of Sydney argued that the outcome of years of political jostling was increased power for Xi within a "dual core leadership" with Li Keqiang.

"It is really the Xi-Li show. They are deeply networked individuals and both have a power base," he said.

"The others aren't ever going to take away from their glory if they get things right," he added, describing their colleagues as "not particularly disruptive".

All the new members of the body are older figures, meaning that under existing rules they should have to retire in five years' time, while Xi and Li carry on to another term.

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

Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University told Reuters: "The leadership is divided. I'm not saying that they're not going to try anything. 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. I don't see any headway."

In a deliberately opaque system that prizes consensus and continuity, it is impossible to be certain what Xi stands for and what his priorities will be – still less to know whether he will be able to carry out whatever plans he has in mind.

After numerous scandals over corruption, most notoriously over former Politburo member Bo Xilai - now facing prosecution following his wife's conviction for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood - it was perhaps inevitable that Xi would have to address the issue of 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 that Xi would embrace new methods of tackling the problems. Many believe greater transparency and accountability are needed to root out corruption.

Xi also praised the "bravery and wisdom" of the Chinese people, yet went on to add: "Our people love life and yearn for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and health care and more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment."

Zhang Jian, a political scientist at Beijing University, said: "He carefully did not mention people wanting more decisions in their own lives."

He noted that Xi had portrayed the Chinese people as being concerned with food and housing but having "no aspirations beyond material goods".

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

His second wife, Peng Liyuan, is a famous military singer who was better known than her husband for many years. They have one daughter, who is currently studying at Harvard.

As expected the standing committee is entirely male, although there are now two female members of the 25-strong Politburo thanks to the elevation of the Fujian party secretary, Sun Chunlan. She joins Liu Yandong, who some had hoped could reach the top body this year.


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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