China's new leaders face myriad challenges

Associated Press
Newly named Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, shakes hands with former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao near Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, during a plenary session of the National People's Congress where delegates voted Li as new premier at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Friday, March 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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BEIJING (AP) — China named the Communist Party's No. 2 leader, Li Keqiang, premier on Friday as a long-orchestrated leadership transition nears its end, leaving the new leaders to confront uneven economic growth, unbridled corruption and a severely befouled environment that are stirring public discontent.

The party-controlled legislature overwhelmingly selected Li, the only candidate for the post, 2,940 in favor with one opposed and six abstaining. A day earlier, the legislature similarly appointed Xi Jinping to the ceremonial post of president, making him China's pre-eminent leader following his ascent last November to head the Communist Party and the military.

Though the outcome of the legislative session was a foregone conclusion, it's the result of years of fractious behind-the-scenes bargaining. They hail from different factions: Li Keqiang (pronounced lee kuh chahng) is a protege of the now-retired President Hu Jintao while Xi Jinping (pronounced shee gin ping) is the son of a revolutionary veteran with backing among party elders.

After Li's selection was announced, he and Xi shook hands and smiled for photographers in the Great Hall of the People. Evidence of their and their patrons' ability to forge consensus will be seen Saturday when appointments to the Cabinet and other top government posts are announced.

Together, Xi and Li now steer a rising global power beset with many domestic challenges that will test their leadership. Chief among them are a sputtering economy that's overly dominated by powerful state industries and mounting public anger over widespread corruption, a burgeoning income gap and social inequality.

An increasingly vocal Chinese public is expressing impatience with the government's unfulfilled promises to curb abuses of power by local officials, better police the food supply and clean up the country's polluted rivers, air and soil.

"What do ordinary people care about? Food safety, and smog if you are in a big city, and official corruption," said the prominent Chinese author and social commentator Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun. "They just want to have a peaceful, stable and safe life. To have money and food, and live without worry of being tortured, or having their homes forcefully demolished."

"The entire country is watching for Xi's next step," the writer said.

That sentiment was echoed by at least one National People's Congress delegate as he filed out from the huge, red-carpeted cavern of Beijing's Great Hall of the People after Thursday's vote for Xi. Li Qinghe veered slightly from the ingratiating remarks that have come to be expected of deputies, saying that while he "resolutely endorsed" Xi's selection as president, the position was vested with high expectations.

"I hope that he will pay more attention to problems affecting the people's lives," said Li, a petrochemical plant worker and delegate from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. He cited as his concerns jobs for rural migrants, schools for their children and affordable medical care.

Xi's accession marks only the second orderly transfer of power in more than six decades of Communist Party rule. Underlining that transition, after the result of Thurday's vote was announced, the 59-year-old Xi bowed to delegates and turned to his predecessor, Hu. The two shook hands and posed for photos.

Governing China is often plodding as leaders, none of them politically strong enough to prevail individually, forge consensus with their colleagues in the collective leadership.

In some intriguing signs of the new leadership's direction, the congress on Friday appointed named as supreme court president Zhou Qiang, a provincial party secretary with a reputation as a progressive and a former aide to a well-known legal reformer. On Thursday, another liberal-minded reformer and a close ally of Hu, Li Yuanchao, was named vice president, breaking with the practice of recent years because he is not in the party's seven-member ruling inner sanctum.

Early indications of the new government's priorities came in a policy program delivered during last week's opening of the legislative session. It pledged to clean up the country's environment, fight pervasive graft and official extravagance and improve welfare benefits for the poor.

The report, delivered by Premier Wen Jiaobao in his last speech before stepping down, promised to give private companies a fairer chance to compete, but did not say how Beijing would deal with big state companies controlling most of China's industries that economists have warned need to be curbed in order to preserve future growth. Many experts fear the government will be too hamstrung by powerful interest groups, linked to state industries, to be able to make these changes. But few doubt the urgency of the reform that's needed.

"Now most Chinese can still afford to keep their stomach full, so there isn't any intense resistance," said Murong Xuecun, the writer. "But if the economy enters a depression, it will be hard to say."

Currently, both the Communist Party and the government enjoy little credibility with the public, said Zhang Ming, a China politics expert at prestigious Renmin University in Beijing.

"The way to regain credibility is to at least show some results, but at this point that can't be seen, and I predict there won't be any real results later," Zhang said.

The son of a revolutionary veteran, Xi cuts an authoritative figure with a confidence and congeniality that was lacking in his predecessor, the aloof and stiff Hu. New Premier Li, from a low level officials' household, has appeared to be a cautious administrator, like Hu, and has not been associated with particular policies on his rise.

That's likely to leave Xi as the leadership's dominant public personality. Xi has quickly moved to court the military after taking over from Hu as head of the party's Central Military Commission and reached out to reformers while repeatedly stating his staunch belief in party power to appeal to hard-liners.

For Xi to consolidate his power within the party, he will come up against various interest groups, such as the sons and daughters of communist China's founding fathers who want to keep benefiting from their connections, or those with links to banks and state industries who don't want their privileged positions threatened.

Ideologically, there are those who believe China needs an even stronger, more authoritarian government that promotes more egalitarian economic and social policies, while others want a transition to a more democratic government.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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