China's 'conservative' line-up faces daunting task

Stalling economy and political infighting represent huge challenges for the new team which analysts have criticised as being elitist.

Xi Jinping, China’s tenacious new leader, was compared to Barack Obama by some Chinese netizens.
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BEIJING // When Xi Jinping, China's new leader, applied to join the county's ruling Communist Party he was rebuffed eight times because his father had fallen victim to one of Mao's purges.

Now as the leader of that party his tenacity will be tested as he faces difficulties in moving the country forward including a stalling economy and political infighting.

Yesterday at 11.45am - 45 minutes later than scheduled - China unveiled its new hierarchy.

Seven men, led by Xi Jinping, 59, walked onto a dais in the Great Hall of the People to an eruption of camera flashesand shutter clicks.

Mr Xi struck a confident and personable figure.

"We shall do everything we can to live up to your trust and fulfill our mission," he said.

Second in the line-up, and thus in rank, stood Li Keqiang, the incoming premier.

Mr Xi was formally appointed as general secretary after a meeting of senior Communists that capped a week-long congress, events that underlined the party's determination to remain firmly in power. Mr Xi also was appointed chairman of the military commission after Mr Hu stepped down, breaking with the recent tradition in which departing party leaders hung on to the military post to exert influence over their successors.

The move gives Mr Xi a freer hand to consolidate his power.

While Mr Xi and Mr Li belong to the "fifth generation" of Communist leaders — Mr Li is 57 - their colleagues on the standing committee are of the same age as the men who just retired.

But experts say that the new politburo is made up of conservative technocrats.

"This is a pretty conservative line up," Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong's Baptist University.

"I don't see them moving quickly on the necessary reforms."

On his Twitter account Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, simply wrote: "They blew it! Politics within a tight elite won. Why did we ever expect anything different?"

Earlier in the year it had seemed at least one or two candidates were being considered who would have pushed for limited political and economic reforms.

That changed after the scandal involving Chongqing's party chief, Bo Xilai, and his wife Gu Kailai and the re-emergence of China's former president Jiang Zemin as kingmaker.

All five of the new politburo members are largely perceived as being Mr Jiang allies rather than proteges of the outgoing president Hu Jintao.

Mr Jiang's recent resurgence - he was rumoured to be dead last year - was one of the reasons Mr Hu might have stepped down from the central military commission.

Mr Hu is said to have lost some influence. Mr Xi is seen to be closer to the pro-business "Shanghai Gang" faction that has Mr Jiang as its figurehead.

By giving Mr Xi full control of the military from the start of his presidency, the party is attempting to diminish Mr Jiang's influence, said analysts, because it gives the incoming president a chance to stamp his authority.

"This is trade off aimed at weeding out Jiang. If Hu really retires it will be hard for Jiang to carry on wielding influence from behind the scenes," said Steve Tsang, director China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Mr Hu's presidency had started on the backfoot as Mr Jiang retained his position on the military commission.

Mr Xi emerged as the front-runner for Mr Hu's job in 2008 when he was appointed vice-president. Mr Xi, the son of party aristocracy, is widely thought to be a compromise candidate, agreed upon after Mr Li - Mr Hu's protege - failed to win Mr Jiang's support for the top position.

For a Chinese leader he also had unusually deep links with the US. Some Chinese have even compared Mr Xi to the US president, Barack Obama.

"This speech is very nicely written," wrote one netizen on China's popular microblogging website Weibo. "His voice reminds me of Obama's."

Mr Xi, who speaks in a slow baritone, eschewed the Marxist jargon beloved by most Communist Party officials and spoke in simple terms.

"Our people love life and yearn for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory incomes, greater social security, improved medical, more comfortable living and a more beautiful environment," he said.

"There are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption."

Much to amazement of journalists assembled in the Great Hall of the People he even apologised for being late - though no explanation was offered.

Some suggested that the seven men might have been wrangling over who gets what job right down to the last minute - something that might not be that far from the truth given the rumoured difficulties on agreeing on the line-up.

"Whoever they are let's hope they put the county before themselves, said one netizen.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse