China's new leadership takes the stage

On Monday, Chinese President Hu Jintao introduced Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping, two new members of the Communist Party's top policymaking body, and likely rivals for the top job.

Sartorially speaking, there was nothing to set the two men apart. They wore the same dark blue suits and red-hued ties as their seven comrades on the podium.

Wordlessly, they maintained anodyne fixed smiles as President Hu Jintao introduced them and other members of the Communist Party's supreme policymaking body to the world on Monday.

One of the two men, however, is primed to be the next leader of the world's most populous nation. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are not only new members of China's innermost political sanctum. They are also the youngest – at ages 54 and 52 respectively – and rising stars of the next generation hoping to guide China's continued rise as a global power.

In a sign of the checks and balances that today moderate change in the Communist Party, say analysts of China's murky politics, the two have risen from different backgrounds – one from the booming southeast coast and the other from the lagging northern Rust-Belt – to their new posts on the Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Political Bureau.

Mr. Xi, currently party chief in the dynamic metropolis of Shanghai, is a so-called "princeling," the son of a former vice premier, and he is married to a well-known singer. He has made his name in the southern coastal provinces that were the first to cast off the economic shackles of state control, experimenting with reform, foreign investment, and rapid modernization.

Mr. Li, who has been party chief in the poor, heavy-industrial province of Liaoning for the past three years, worked his way up the system from a base in the Communist Youth League, under the patronage of his mentor, Mr. Hu. His experience is rooted in China's poorer, more conservative hinterland.

Though Xi is a nominal nose ahead of Li in the running to succeed Hu in five years' time (Hu introduced Xi immediately before Li, in a subtle but significant indication of the hierarchy), the succession is by no means written in stone.

"They have left the door open for competition, which is quite unusual in the Chinese political system," says Li Cheng, who monitors China's leadership struggles from the Brookings Institution in Washington. "A lot of things could happen in the next five years."

Both front-runners face a delicate task during Hu's second presidential term: Neither is especially well known or popular, so each must carve out a reputation without upstaging his elders; and without straying from the party line.

The 17th Party Congress, which closed Sunday, proved to be the opportunity Hu had hoped it would offer for him to impose that line. Delegates unanimously enshrined his pet theories of "scientific development" and a "harmonious society" into the Communist Party Constitution, endorsing his stress on social and environmental programs to mitigate the negative effects of breakneck economic growth.

Hu's repeated references to economic "development" rather than economic "growth" marks "a profound difference in concept" from previous policies designed purely to boost China's wealth creation, Zhu Zhixin, China's top economic policymaker, told reporters on the sidelines of the party congress.

"Now we emphasize not only economic growth … but the relationship between growth and the environment and a reasonable distribution of economic benefits," said Zhu, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.

Repeated environmental disasters and a growing gap between rich and poor are among the problems Hu has pledged to tackle during his second term of office, distancing himself still further from the "growth at any cost" approach of his predecessor as party leader and president, Jiang Zemin.

The younger "fifth generation" of Chinese leaders, of whom Li and Xi are the most prominent standard-bearers, may be better suited for such tasks than their predecessors. While China's political class has hitherto been dominated by engineers, a new brand of up-and-coming leader has been schooled in a wider range of disciplines.

Li, for example, was trained as a lawyer, and a recent study of top officials in China's four largest cities, which generally blaze a trail for the rest of the country, found that fully three quarters of them had majored in economics, management, social sciences, law, or the humanities.

Whether that might make them more kindly disposed than their elders to a greater degree of democracy, or at least openness, in Chinese politics, is as yet unclear.

In his speech opening the congress last week, Hu harped repeatedly on the theme of "inner party democracy," and officials insisted that elections to the party's 200-strong Central Committee were a competitive, multicandidate affair.

However there were only 8 percent more candidates than places on the Central Committee when congress delegates voted Saturday, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which left little room for competition.

When it came to choosing a Standing Committee this week, politburo members clearly had virtually no choice: the list of its probable members had been circulating for days in advance of the congress.

"Including two candidates for the future succession is progress of sorts," says Prof. Li, the senior fellow at Brookings. "But they were not elected by any means. This party congress was very controlled, and it remains a black box of manipulation."

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