Xi Jinping takes helm of China amid reform calls

BEIJING (AP) — Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as China’s leader on Thursday, assuming the top posts in the Communist Party and the powerful military in a once-a-decade political transition unbowed by scandals, a slower economy and public demands for reforms.

Xi was formally appointed as general secretary after a meeting of senior Communists that capped a weeklong congress, events that underlined the party’s determination to remain firmly in power. Xi also was appointed chairman of the military commission after 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 moves give Xi a freer hand to consolidate his authority as first among equals in the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power. Immediately after the announcements, Xi strode onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People, leading the six other newly appointed committee members, all conservative technocrats dressed in dark suits.

“We shall do everything we can to live up to your trust and fulfill our mission,” Xi, 59, said in remarks that were broadcast on state television and worldwide.

Standing beside him were Li Keqiang, the presumptive premier and chief economic official; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan; Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli; and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, once the leadership’s top troubleshooter, who was named Thursday to head the party’s internal watchdog panel.

The ascent of Xi and Li became all but inevitable when they were inducted into the leadership five years ago, and they represent a generational change in leading the world’s No. 2 economy and newest diplomatic and military power. It comes as China’s investment-charged juggernaut economy is slowing, and as a more prosperous Chinese public expects improvements in living standards, government and social fairness.

“There are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption,” Xi said, reiterating a theme of the recent congress. “We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert.”

Xi is the son of a hero of the revolution and noted reformer. In all, at least four of the new leaders have solid Communist pedigrees, a sign that 63 years after the revolution that brought the party to power, a new class of “red nobility” is entrenched.

Powerbrokers have placed the party into their loyal hands as it confronts public outrage over a wide rich-poor gap and the corruption and privileges that have enriched the elite.

The new lineup is heavy on conservatives and leaves out reform-minded politicians who are allies of Hu, suggesting the leadership is unlikely to significantly liberalize the authoritarian government.

Except for Xi and Li, who are both in their 50s, the rest of the leaders are in their 60s and will reach the party’s unofficial retirement age by the time of the next congress in five years, likely leading to continued political infighting.

“Political reform will be put on the back burner,” said Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Politically it will be frozen. It will be totally frozen.”

Maintaining Communist rule and ensuring stability is paramount for the Chinese leadership, said Dali Yang, an author and political scientist at the University of Chicago. “They don’t want China’s (Mikhail) Gorbachev,” he said. Under Gorbachev, a policy of democratization and greater openness undermined, and ultimately brought down, Soviet Communist rule in the early 1990s.

Still, Xi has a chance to cut a more open and international figure than the ultra-reserved Hu. His wife is a popular singer, and his daughter studies at Harvard University.

Xi spent part of his youth toiling on a farm in the countryside when Mao Zedong’s radical rule shut universities and targeted elite families like his. His university years and early career came as China embarked on reforms and began turning to the outside world for solutions to its chronic poverty.

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