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Xi Jinping takes China's reins. Will he promote political reform? (+video)

Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party, is considered to be reform-minded, but the party's new leadership team is dominated by change-wary conservatives.

By Staff Writer / November 15, 2012

Xi Jinping stepped into China's top leadership role Thursday, becoming Communist Party General Secretary as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Vincent Yu/AP

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Beijing

There has been much talk in recent weeks – in the official Chinese media and on the tongues of top leaders – of the need for political reform in China.

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BEIJING (AFP) - China unveils its new leaders, with Xi Jinping marching on stage at the head of a revamped line-up that will steer the world's number two economy for the next decade. Duration: 01:10

However, there were few signs on Thursday that such words will mean much in reality anytime soon, as a new leadership team dominated by aging conservatives took over the reins.

As expected, Xi Jinping is the new head of the ruling Communist Party, seconded by the only other member of the last Politburo Standing Committee to be staying on, Li Keqiang. Both are in their 50s, and have reputations as cautious reformers.

But the five new members of the group that effectively rules China are all nearly a decade older than them, and most are seen as wary of change. 

“This is a very bad lineup and certainly dampens any hope of political reform,” says Zhang Jian, a professor of politics at Peking University. “I don’t expect much in the way of change from these men.”

China’s new rulers emerged from the Communist Party’s 18th Congress that ended Wednesday. They introduced themselves Thursday morning to the Chinese and international press, filing onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People and bowing in turn as Mr. Xi called their names. Mr. Li, appearing more relaxed than his colleagues, waved and smiled to the massed TV cameras, more like a Western politician. (Read more about who's who here)

In a brief speech notable for its almost casual delivery, Xi signaled what may become his policy priorities. “Our people … wish to have a better education, more stable jobs, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions, and a better environment,” he said. “To meet their desire for a happy life is our mission.”

Not once did he mention economic growth, which has been a mantra of previous Chinese administrations, and a goal to be achieved at all costs, for three decades.

Looking forward to ... reform?

The new Chinese leader, who will become national president in March, made no bones about problems within his party, among which he mentioned “corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities, and bureaucratism.”

How successful Xi will be in tackling such problems, however, is uncertain, say some critics. “I believe Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have strong reform genes in their blood, and they will not be constrained by former leaders’ conservatism,” says Chen Ziming, a Beijing-based political analyst who was jailed for several years for his role in the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. “But they are surrounded by old men who do not meet peoples’ demands for more democracy or more reform.”

Notable by their absence from the new lineup are two younger reputed reformers, Li Yuanchao, who heads the party’s Organization Department, and Wang Yang, party boss in the southern province of Guangdong.

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