Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 08:16 PM
Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as China's leader 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 morning meeting of senior communists that capped a weeklong congress, events that underlined the party's determination to remain firmly in power. Xi also was named 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," the 59-year-old, pudgy Xi 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; Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, who was appointed Thursday to run the party's executive secretariat; and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, once the leadership's top troubleshooter and now head of 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.
Power-brokers 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."
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 reign 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.
On his rise to the top, Xi served as a secretary to a noted general, spent time as a low-level administrator in a rural area and then took successive postings in rapidly developing coastal provinces that placed him at forefront of market-oriented reforms. There, Xi gained a reputation as a can-do administrator, though one careful not to antagonize colleagues in China's consensus-bound politics.
Xi's promotion Thursday marked only the second smooth transition under communist rule, despite a turbulent political year in which politicking for leadership spots was buffeted by the messiest political scandal in decades.
Bo Xilai, a member of the elite like Xi and a contender for the Standing Committee, was purged months after an aide disclosed that his wife murdered a British businessman.
Speaking to the media Thursday, Xi traced China's ancient civilization and its struggles to regain its leading role in the world, culminating in a communist revolution that he promised to lead onward to the benefit of the Chinese people.
"Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the entire party and the people of all ethnic groups in China in taking up this historic baton and in making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation, make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations, and make even greater contribution to mankind," Xi said.
He then ran through a list of deliverables to the Chinese people: better education, higher incomes, a bigger social safety net, environmental protection.
"To meet their desire for a happy life is our mission," Xi said in his pleasing baritone, in remarks that were relatively free of the jargon Chinese leaders usually employ.
His remarks were carried across China, beamed from wide-screen televisions in public squares and on monitors on buses. While many people ignored the goings-on, others expressed optimism that the political transition would bring real change.
"The next 10 years is the most important period for China. The next decade carries the hope of developing the country to a higher level in terms of economic growth and clean government," said Qian Wenlei, a 70-year-old retiree in Beijing.
Xi begins his rule with a freer hand to establish himself, with Hu having given up the military commission. The seven-member leadership is smaller than the last, which had nine members, and that may streamline decision-making, which is done by consensus.
Still, Xi's colleagues in the leadership owe their positions not to him, but to other political patrons, and they have their power bases.
Li, who is in line to become premier, counts Hu as his mentor. Though Xi and several others in the new team share a patron in Jiang Zemin, the 86-year-old former party chief who retired a decade ago, they are not aligned in policies. That will force Xi to forge coalitions to get things done.
Among the newly empowered leaders is Liu Yunshan, who as propaganda chief the past decade has overseen ever-tightening controls over domestic media and sought to spread them to the relatively freer Internet. As head of the secretariat, Liu will now oversee many of the 82 million-member party's main departments.
"I don't think this is the dream team," said Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. "This is a very experienced, very mature and very cautious, stable team."
Getting their team in place will take the better part of a year. Hu still holds the largely ceremonial role of state president, which he is not expected to relinquish until the party-controlled legislature meets in March and appoints leading officials in the State Council, the Cabinet.
Hu seems to have been largely routed in the behind-the-scenes bargaining for positions; his top aide was not even included in the 25-member Politburo. The aide was sidelined in August after his son died crashing a Ferrari, a car he should not have been able to afford, and officials attempted to cover it up.
Associated Press reporters Didi Tang, Alexa Olesen and Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.
FENG LI / GETTY IMAGES
Xi Jinping became China's new leader Thursday, assuming the top posts in the Communist Party.