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Beijing (AFP) Nov 15, 2012
China's Xi Jinping hinted at a more open style Thursday as he took the reins of the Communist Party, but conservatives on his leadership team could limit his scope for reform, analysts said.
In a speech that introduced China's new leader to his country and the world, Xi indicated a desire to improve relations with the international community which has grown concerned by Beijing's growing economic and military clout.
"China needs to learn more about the world and the world needs to learn more about China," he said, looking relaxed and confident after emerging at the helm of a seven-man Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the nation's top decision-making body.
Xi tightened his grip on the levers of power by taking over as chairman of the Central Military Commission from outgoing leader Hu Jintao, whose own predecessor Jiang Zemin held on to the influential post for two extra years.
The PSC has been slimmed down from nine members under Hu, which could ease logjams in the consensus-driven world of the party's top echelons.
But many of its members are seen as traditionalists, despite growing calls for action on corruption, enforcement of the rule of law, and an overhaul of China's economic model as growth stutters.
China's neighbours Japan and South Korea are also eyeing the leadership transition closely for any sign that they can reset a bitter territorial dispute over East China Sea islands.
But observers said Thursday that any change of tone, or action on reform issues, will be put to one side while he works to shore up his power base.
"The line-up reflects considerable conservatism," said Joseph Cheng, a political analyst at City University of Hong Kong.
The policy preferences of Xi and other key figures remains unclear, and Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, said the handover had been "the most opaque of processes".
"The party still seems to have very little idea about how to write the next chapter of reform, it evinces a consensus of extreme caution," he added.
Xi himself is seen as a compromise figure, acceptable to both former president Jiang and Hu, although closer to the pro-business "Shanghai Gang" faction that has Jiang as its figurehead.
Hu came up through the Communist Youth League, as did many of his allies, who include the new number two Li Keqiang. They are seen as favouring a greater state role in the economy, and emphasise fairer distribution as well as economic growth.
To what extent the Hu camp has managed to place its people in the wider party hierarchy remains unclear.
But two key figures seen as favouring some level of reform, Guangdong province party chief Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, head of the apparatus that controls party personnel appointments, both missed out on slots in the elite PSC.
However Meng Jianzhu, minister of public security, who has a hardline reputation after overseeing harsh crackdowns on restive minority areas, was also left off the list.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University, said: "It is a bit of a Jiang Zemin clique. Hu Jintao has lost a lot of influence.
"Everything will depend on Xi Jinping and whether he exercises leadership. Will he be someone who can introduce reforms? I'm still very sceptical."
In his speech -- a marked departure from the dry, jargon-laden lectures of his predecessor Hu Jintao -- Xi spoke of the people's desires for better education and health care, more stable jobs and a better environment,
"There was a lot of praise for the Chinese people and also an admission of the seriousness of corruption as a problem," said Cheng. "A new leader must establish his appeal to the people."
Pu Xingzu, politics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said its style and content indicated that the leadership would seek to be "low-key, practical, close to the people".
"It was short. It was practical -- not really high-sounding with empty words or 'officialese'. Third, it was more about the people and the people's livelihood."
But Chinese political observer Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore cast doubt on the prospects for change.
"I dont think we can name individuals as reformers or conservatives, in China if the environment is conservative then everyone is a conservative, and if the environment is reformist then everyone is a reformist.
"There has been no shift in the last 10 years, and we can't now expect anything different. There is not going to be substantial reform."
China unveils new leadership with Xi at helm
After striding out in Beijing's Great Hall of the People as the party's new general-secretary, succeeding President Hu Jintao, Xi vowed to fight official corruption and build a "better life" for the nation's 1.3 billion people.
Xi's long-expected ascent to the apex of national politics was confirmed when he emerged onto the stage in the hall on Tiananmen Square in front of the rest of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, after a week-long party congress.
Xi, 59, has an impeccable political pedigree as the son of a lieutenant to revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. He will formally replace Hu as state president when the rubber-stamp legislature confirms the appointment in March.
"We are not complacent, and we will never rest on our laurels," Xi said in his first address to the nation, standing in front of his six colleagues on the new elite committee -- all men, who all bar one wore red ties.
The previous committee had nine men, and analysts said the lower number would ease decision-making at the consensus-driven heights of the Communist Party for the next decade as China shapes up to rapid change on a host of fronts.
"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," Xi said, highlighting corruption and "being divorced from the people".
"We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert."
The speech marked the most significant appearance on the national stage for a man about whom still little is known.
He appeared confident and far more relaxed than his stiff predecessor Hu, starting out by apologising for the speech's late start.
Xi's standing at the top of China's opaque power structure was emphasised with Hu also handing him control of the Central Military Commission.
Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin had clung on to that job, which controls the world's largest military, for two years after relinquishing the presidency.
In second place in the new elite line-up was current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, whose promotion puts him in line to be appointed the country's premier in charge of China's day-to-day economic administration in March.
The spectacle marked the climax of years of jockeying within the secretive party, which brooks little dissent to its monopoly on political power but which has had to take new account of the public's demands in the age of social media.
Analysts said that despite calls from Xi, Hu and others for reform, the new Politburo Standing Committee appeared to have a conservative slant, but also stressed that continuity and stability reigned supreme in the communist system.
"I think that this is the result of compromise and consensus among different groups," Chinese University of Hong Kong associate professor Tsao King Kwun said.
The process was essentially finalised Wednesday when the party ended its week-long congress by announcing a new 200-strong Central Committee. On Thursday it approved higher leadership bodies including the elite standing committee.
The seven men who hold innermost power are 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 people.
China also bubbles with localised unrest sparked by public rage at corruption, official abuses, and the myriad manifestations of anger among the millions left out of the country's economic boom.
China's economy, which relies heavily on manufactured exports and heavy infrastructure investment, has been stunningly successful in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.
But the party acknowledges the model is becoming unsustainable as the economy matures and demands for higher living standards grow, and Hu last week called for a new approach with a robust private sector and stronger domestic demand.
How the new leadership under Xi will address these challenges in the world's most populous nation remains unclear.
Analysts believed Xi's assumption of military leadership from day one strengthens his hand.
But they said significant change was unlikely under Xi -- even if he desired it, which is unclear -- as he must first work to shore up his clout on the new leadership committee.
"Everything will depend on Xi Jinping and whether he exercises leadership. Will he be someone who can introduce reforms? I'm still very sceptical," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Observers see two main factions, one centred on pro-business proteges of Jiang and another linked to allies of Hu, who favoured more equitable development.
The run-up to this year's congress was unsettled by events surrounding former rising star Bo Xilai, who was brought low by scandal, and by new allegations about secret riches amassed by the families of top leaders.
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