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Beijing (AFP) Nov 15, 2012
With a revolutionary hero for a father and a pop star for a wife, China's new leader Xi Jinping has impeccable political pedigree but has given few clues about how he will govern the country.
Xi, 59, walked into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday as general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the most powerful position in the world's most populous country and second-biggest economy.
With an air of confidence and a relaxed demeanour rarely seen among China's top politicians, he gave an unexpectedly long and charismatic speech to the nation.
"Our party is dedicated to serving the people," Xi said.
"We will never rest on our laurels... our party faces many severe challenges, and there are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption (and) being divorced from the people."
But whether Xi has the conviction or political weight needed to force through policy after he is elevated to the position of national president in March is uncertain.
Xi has risen to the top of the secretive party by presenting himself as a compromise candidate -- acceptable to outgoing leader Hu Jintao, still-influential former president Jiang Zemin, and other power-brokers.
But since he has largely kept his policy leanings to himself, how he will address China's challenges remains unclear -- even though he takes over at an uncertain time, with growth slowing as public expectations and scrutiny rise.
Xi has avoided revealing any leanings that might threaten his status as a consensus candidate, backing non-controversial policies and positions during his rise up the party ranks, said China political analyst Willy Lam.
"He's a team player. He played by the rules of the party. He's not a risk-taker. He doesn't want to take risks that might jeopardise his career."
Whatever his beliefs, few expect Xi to stray far from the communist template of gradually opening the economy while maintaining tight political controls, especially as he will need to first consolidate power, a slow process faced by all incoming Chinese leaders.
Nonetheless he is seen as a cautious and skillful politician, able to navigate the factional divides of the party hierarchy.
Xi, a slightly plump figure typically seen on state television with a deadpan expression, rose up the party ranks mainly on China's fast-growing east coast.
As the son of the late Xi Zhongxun, a respected Communist elder, he is part of the "princeling" generation -- the privileged offspring of hallowed figures who played key roles in the revolution that brought the party to power in 1949.
Despite this pedigree, Xi Jinping was "sent down" to the Chinese countryside to live and work alongside peasants, as were many young educated Chinese during Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
His father fought alongside Mao and served as vice-premier until he fell in one of Mao's political purges, then was rehabilitated under pragmatic former top leader Deng Xiaoping.
While labouring in the poor northern province of Shaanxi, Xi joined the Communist Party and in 1975 moved to Beijing to study at the prestigious Tsinghua University.
He oversaw some of China's most economically dynamic and reform-minded areas, the eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, before briefly taking the top post in the commercial hub of Shanghai in 2007 -- earning a reputation as a supporter of economic reforms and an effective manager.
He created a stir during a 2009 speech in Mexico by scoffing at "foreigners with full bellies and nothing to do but criticise our affairs" -- many Chinese harbour resentment against the West -- but he has unusually deep US links for a Chinese leader.
As part of a research trip in 1985 he spent time in Muscatine, Iowa, deep in the Midwest, and paid his host family a return visit in February while on an official visit to the United States, where his daughter is a student at Harvard.
A reputed basketball fan, Xi also took in an NBA game, while a diplomatic cable released on whistle-blower site WikiLeaks recounted a 2007 conversation between Clark Randt, the then US ambassador to China, and Xi that revealed the future president as a big fan of US World War II films.
The cables described Xi as pragmatic yet ambitious, willing to tilt with the political winds to get ahead.
They said he was uncorrupted by money yet with a sense of political entitlement, feeling that fellow "princelings" like him "deserve to rule China".
His extended family have business interests worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an investigation by the Bloomberg news agency earlier this year, which said there was no indication of wrongdoing on his or their part.
Xi's public persona is given a sprinkle of glamour by his wife Peng Liyuan, who holds the rank of army general and sings songs praising the party.
Some analysts suggest Xi's status as a consensus figure could mean less paralysis between factions than under Hu, who heads a group of leaders who moved up through the Communist Youth League.
But the curtain drawn across the party and its leaders makes that impossible to predict, said Patrick Chovanec, a Tsinghua University professor.
"It would have been counterproductive for (Xi) when he was still relatively junior to show himself. The reason he has got ahead is because he is a follower and has not struck out and done something that is radically different," he said.
China unveils new leadership with Xi at helm
After striding out in Beijing's Great Hall of the People as the party's new general-secretary, succeeding President Hu Jintao, Xi vowed to fight official corruption and build a "better life" for the nation's 1.3 billion people.
Xi's long-expected ascent to the apex of national politics was confirmed when he emerged onto the stage in the hall on Tiananmen Square in front of the rest of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, after a week-long party congress.
Xi, 59, has an impeccable political pedigree as the son of a lieutenant to revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. He will formally replace Hu as state president when the rubber-stamp legislature confirms the appointment in March.
"We are not complacent, and we will never rest on our laurels," Xi said in his first address to the nation, standing in front of his six colleagues on the new elite committee -- all men, who all bar one wore red ties.
The previous committee had nine men, and analysts said the lower number would ease decision-making at the consensus-driven heights of the Communist Party for the next decade as China shapes up to rapid change on a host of fronts.
"Under the new conditions, our party faces many severe challenges, and there are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved," Xi said, highlighting corruption and "being divorced from the people".
"We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert."
The speech marked the most significant appearance on the national stage for a man about whom still little is known.
He appeared confident and far more relaxed than his stiff predecessor Hu, starting out by apologising for the speech's late start.
Xi's standing at the top of China's opaque power structure was emphasised with Hu also handing him control of the Central Military Commission.
Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin had clung on to that job, which controls the world's largest military, for two years after relinquishing the presidency.
In second place in the new elite line-up was current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, whose promotion puts him in line to be appointed the country's premier in charge of China's day-to-day economic administration in March.
The spectacle marked the climax of years of jockeying within the secretive party, which brooks little dissent to its monopoly on political power but which has had to take new account of the public's demands in the age of social media.
Analysts said that despite calls from Xi, Hu and others for reform, the new Politburo Standing Committee appeared to have a conservative slant, but also stressed that continuity and stability reigned supreme in the communist system.
"I think that this is the result of compromise and consensus among different groups," Chinese University of Hong Kong associate professor Tsao King Kwun said.
The process was essentially finalised Wednesday when the party ended its week-long congress by announcing a new 200-strong Central Committee. On Thursday it approved higher leadership bodies including the elite standing committee.
The seven men who hold innermost power are tasked with addressing a rare deceleration of economic growth that threatens the party's key claim to legitimacy -- continually improving the livelihoods of the country's people.
China also bubbles with localised unrest sparked by public rage at corruption, official abuses, and the myriad manifestations of anger among the millions left out of the country's economic boom.
China's economy, which relies heavily on manufactured exports and heavy infrastructure investment, has been stunningly successful in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.
But the party acknowledges the model is becoming unsustainable as the economy matures and demands for higher living standards grow, and Hu last week called for a new approach with a robust private sector and stronger domestic demand.
How the new leadership under Xi will address these challenges in the world's most populous nation remains unclear.
Analysts believed Xi's assumption of military leadership from day one strengthens his hand.
But they said significant change was unlikely under Xi -- even if he desired it, which is unclear -- as he must first work to shore up his clout on the new leadership committee.
"Everything will depend on Xi Jinping and whether he exercises leadership. Will he be someone who can introduce reforms? I'm still very sceptical," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Observers see two main factions, one centred on pro-business proteges of Jiang and another linked to allies of Hu, who favoured more equitable development.
The run-up to this year's congress was unsettled by events surrounding former rising star Bo Xilai, who was brought low by scandal, and by new allegations about secret riches amassed by the families of top leaders.
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