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China: 18th Communist Party Congress ends with Xi Jinping unveiled as leader

Updated On: Nov 15, 2012

With the conclusion of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, Vice President Xi Jinping was unveiled as the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), along with a line-up of new leaders to the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest governing body in China. The leadership transition, coming amid economic uncertainty and regional tensions, is seen as being on track, but concerns have been raised about the figures in the Committee who are deemed more conservative. Meanwhile Sino-US relations are seen as unlikely to drastically change course.

Xi Jinping announced as leader


The Congress has named Mr Xi General Secretary, the highest post in the CCP. He is slated to take over as Chinese President from outgoing leader Hu Jintao. In a surprise development, Mr Hu also relinquished his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the organ that runs China’s army. With Mr Xi also taking over chairmanship of the military body, China’s leadership transition is virtually complete, diminishing the chances for lingering rivalry for influence between outgoing and incoming leaders.

Challenges

In his speech, Mr Xi called for the CCP to resolve problems such as “corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism caused by some party officials”.

The leadership transition comes amid slowing economic growth that threatens the CCP’s main claim to legitimacy – constantly improving the livelihoods of the country’s citizens. China also simmers with localised unrest often triggered by outrage at corruption, government abuses, and a widening income inequality.

China’s economy is dependent on manufactured exports, and has been largely successful in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. But even the CCP acknowledges this current economic model is becoming unsustainable as the economy matures and demands for higher standards of living increase. Mr Hu last week called for a new approach with a stronger private sector and domestic demand.

Observers were gauging the strength of reformers or conservatives in the new line-up. But most stressed that continuity and stability were intact within the political system. Experts believe that two factions have been jockeying for power, with one centred on the protégés of Mr Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, and another connected to Mr Hu’s allies. Mr Xi is considered a consensus figure who nonetheless leans towards Mr Jiang.

What direction Mr Xi and the other leaders will take is unknown. Mr Xi in recent years has carefully avoided giving any hint of his political leanings, remaining as neutral as possible to avoid putting at risk his status as an heir among the party’s competing factions.

The new Politburo Standing Committee represents a more conservative line-up than many had hoped for. It excluded several figures deemed to be proponents of reform, such as Li Yuanchao, head of the Organisation Department which manages personnel issues, or Wang Yang, party secretary of the economically vibrant Guangdong province.

Instead, the line-up includes Zhang Dejiang, a North Korea-trained economist, and Liu Yunshan, who tightened controls over China’s media as head of the Propaganda Department. Any changes to the system envisioned by Mr Xi are likely to be constrained by conservative leaders.

Implications for Sino-US relations


The leadership transition is seen as unlikely to dramatically change China’s relations with the US. Mr Xi was long known as the heir apparent, and the Obama administration has been cultivating ties with him. But in coming months, as Mr Xi consolidates his power, bilateral military tensions are likely to stay elevated, as the US continues its “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific and boosting alliances with countries surrounding China.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is on a trip that will see him make visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Australia, where the US has been expanding military cooperation and establishing a base in the northern city of Darwin. Further, Mr Obama will travel to Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, the latter destination being significant as a platform for rivalry between the US and China.

Report: Xi Jinping takes over reins of Chinese Communist Party at time of heightened anxiety [Washington Post, 14 Nov 2012]

Report: China unveils new leadership with Xi at helm [AFP, 15 Nov 2012]

Report: New Chinese leader gets strong mandate [Financial Times, 15 Nov 2012]