BEIJING — Xi Jinping became China's new leader Thursday, assuming the top posts in the Communist Party and the powerful military in a political transition unbowed by scandals, a slower economy and public demands for reforms.
Xi was introduced as the new party general secretary at Beijing's Great Hall of the People a day after the close of a weeklong party congress that underlined the communists' determination to remain firmly in power. He and the six other men who will form China's new collective leadership, all dressed in dark suits, walked in line onto the red-carpeted stage.
Xi's appointment as chairman of the military commission, announced by the state Xinhua News Agency, marked a break from the recent tradition of retiring leaders holding onto the post for a transitional period to extend their influence. It meant outgoing leader Hu Jintao would relinquish all positions of power, giving Xi broader leeway to consolidate his authority.
The once-a-decade leadership change was carefully choreographed. It became clear Xi would lead China five years ago, when he was appointed to the Standing Committee – the nation's apex of power – as the highest-ranked member who would not be of retirement age this year.
Xi's colleagues in the new Standing Committee are Li Keqiang, the presumptive premier and chief economic official; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan; Vice Premier Wang Qishan; and Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli.
In a speech broadcast live on Chinese state TV and worldwide, Xi said, "We shall do everything we can to live up to your trust and fulfill our mission."
"There are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption," Xi said. "We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert."
The other six leaders were expressionless with their arms at their sides during Xi's 20-minute speech, then smiled to the audience when they walked off stage.
The son of a party elder, and vice president for the past five years, Xi will lead the world's No. 2 economy and newest diplomatic and military power amid increasingly vocal calls for economic and political reform – including from within the 82-million-member party itself.
At ease in front of people and with colleagues, Xi takes over the party leadership from the stiff, technocratic Hu, and is expected to assume the largely ceremonial presidency in March.
The ascent of Xi and Li, the premier-in-waiting, represents a generational change. Though they spent their youths laboring on farms, their university years and early careers took place when China was casting off the planned economy and turning to the free market and to the West. They are thought to be more open to new ideas than their predecessors, but nonetheless bound by China's consensus-oriented politics.
Thursday marked only the second tidy transition since communist rule was established in 1949, despite a turbulent political year that saw the downfall in a murder and corruption scandal of rising populist Bo Xilai, who had been seen as a key contender for the new leadership slate.
The outgoing Hu oversaw a decade of turgid economic growth and urban development and tried to make concern for ordinary people the hallmark of his tenure, but he also will be remembered for harshly stifling dissent and rolling back civil liberties.
At the same time, increased social freedoms have created a generation of Chinese who are more aware of their rights and more vocal about demanding them.
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Selecting delegates to the congress began months ago, with recommendations made by the party's 82 million members, which are then vetted, winnowed and voted on twice. In practice, the selection is controlled by the party's personnel division, giving the leadership room to make sure the powerful and their key proteges are included. President Hu Jintao, who will retire as party general secretary, is a delegate from Jiangsu province, where he grew up but has not lived for four decades. Most of the 2,268 delegates are chosen to show that the congress is broadly representative. Only the opinions of a small subset matter. One power-broker, retired President Jiang Zemin, is a specially invited delegate, a sign of his continuing influence in the leadership bargaining. <em>Caption: In this Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, Chinese military troops march before U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrives at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool, File)</em>
Held over seven days, the congress selects the Central Committee, the party's policy-setting body. The most recent committee had 370 people, comprised of full members and non-voting alternates drawn from the upper echelons of the party, government and military. The congress also names the party's internal watchdog agency. Though the powerful hold sway in determining the outcome, there is room for dissent on the margins. Candidates outnumber seats by a tiny percentage. Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu as party chief, barely made it into the committee in 1997 in what was seen as a vote against nepotism. His father was a patriarch of the revolution. This time rank-and-file delegates have been told to "maintain unity" with the leadership. <em>Caption: A man walks past an official propaganda to welcome the Chinese Communist Party's 18th Congress which held in Beijing, at a bookstore in Shanghai, China, Thursday Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)</em>
Choosing the new leaders involves fractious bargaining that attempts to balance out factions and interest groups in the party. Two of the presumed next leaders, Xi and Li, were anointed five years ago, inducted into Hu's leadership to provide continuity. Xi is seen as ex-president Jiang's man; Li as Hu's. Deciding the rest of the lineup has seen unexpectedly sharp-elbowed jostling this year. Bo Xilai, a populist politician seen as a rising star, was cashiered after an aide disclosed that his wife murdered a British businessman. He awaits prosecution, and deciding his fate divided the leadership. A Hu ally was also sidelined after his son died in a Ferrari crash, weakening Hu. How weak will be apparent by counting his allies in the new leadership. <br> <em>Caption: Chinese children play near a floral arrangement displaying a Spirit of Beijing slogan, reading "Patriotism, Innovation, Tolerance, and Social Morals" during the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)</em>
After the congress ends, the Central Committee meets to select a Politburo, roughly 25 members, and from that group, the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power. The current standing committee has nine members, though party-connected academics say that may be whittled to seven this time. Two members are considered shoo-ins: Xi and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to be named premier. The Central Committee also appoints the party commission that oversees the military. A critical question is whether Hu will stay as military commission head. His predecessor, Jiang, did so, hanging on for more than two years and casting a shadow over Hu's efforts to consolidate power. <br> <em>Caption: Chinese delegates having a light moment before the start of the Chongqing delegation meeting of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)</em>
China, like most communist governments, has a history of violent, unpredictable leadership successions. One of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong's named successors died in an alleged failed coup. Party leaders have instituted informal age and term limits to smooth out power transfers. Party chiefs are limited to two five-year terms, while senior leaders 68 years or older at the time of a congress are considered too old to serve in a new leadership. Jiang's stepping aside for Hu in 2002 was the first orderly succession since the party came to power in 1949. <br> <em>Caption: A huge screen shows a broadcast of Chinese President Hu Jintao speaking at the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)</em>