BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party unveiled an older, conservative new leadership line-up on Thursday that appears unlikely to take the drastic action needed to tackle pressing issues like social unrest, environmental degradation, and corruption.
New party chief Xi Jinping, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, and vice-premier in charge of economic affairs Wang Qishan — all expectedly named to the elite decision-making Politburo Standing Committee — are considered cautious reformers. The other four members have the reputation of being conservative.
"We're not going to see any political reform because too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction," said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. "They see it entirely through the prism of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions in Central Asia, so they're not going to go there."
Wang, the most reform-minded in the line-up, has been given the role of fighting widespread graft.
One source said an informal poll was held within the 25-member Politburo to choose the seven members from among 10 candidates. Two of them who had strong reform credentials — Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and party organisation head Li Yuanchao — failed to make it to the standing committee along with the lone woman candidate Liu Yandong.
The source, who has ties to the leadership, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Wang and Li Yuanchao, both allies of outgoing President Hu Jintao, did not make it to the standing committee because party elders felt they were too liberal.
However, all three are in the Politburo, a group that ranks below the standing committee.
"The leadership is divided," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, adding however that the new leadership would find it easier to make progress on economic reform rather than political change.
"It's easier for them to move to a new growth model. I think they agree upon that and that won't be the hardest task. But I see a lot of political paralysis," he said.
Even for China, this is an older line-up, with an average age of 63.4 compared with 62.1 five years ago.
Except for Xi and his deputy Li Keqiang, all the others in the standing committee — the innermost circle of power in China's authoritarian government — are 64 or over and will have to retire within five years.
That could open the way for Wang and Li Yuanchao to replace them, at the next party congress in 2017, perhaps along with so-called "sixth generation" leaders like Inner Mongolia party chief Hu Chunhua.
The standing committee has as expected been cut to seven members from nine, which should ease consensus building and decision making.
Xi, who was also appointed head of the party's top military body, said in an address following the party's once-in-five years congress that he understood the people's desire for a better life but warned of severe challenges going forward.
"We are not complacent, and we will never rest on our laurels," he said after introducing the other six members of the standing committee at the Great Hall of the People, in a carefully choreographed ceremony carried live on state television.
"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, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucracy caused by some party officials," Xi said.
The run-up to the handover has been overshadowed by the party's biggest scandal in decades, with former high-flyer Bo Xilai sacked as party boss of the southwestern Chongqing city after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.
North Korean-trained economist Zhang Dejiang is expected to head the largely rubber-stamp parliament, while Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng is likely to head parliament's advisory body, according to the order in which their names were announced.
Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli and Liu Yunshan, a conservative who has kept domestic media on a tight leash, make up the rest of the group.
Xi will take over President Hu's state position in March at the annual meeting of parliament, when Li Keqiang will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao.
Despite the problems ahead, Xi will at least not have to worry about Hu looking too much over his shoulder.
Hu has not followed his predecessor Jiang Zemin in staying on as head of the military commission after stepping down as party chief. Xi has instead directly taken over that post, strengthening his position.
Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.
With growing public anger and unrest over everything from corruption to environmental degradation, there may also be cautious efforts to answer calls for more political reform, though nobody seriously expects a move towards full democracy.
The party could introduce experimental measures to broaden inner-party democracy — in other words, encouraging greater debate within the party — but stability remains a top concern and one-party rule will be safeguarded.
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