Meet the New, Casual Chinese Leader

ABC News
Meet the New, Casual Chinese Leader
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Meet the New, Casual Chinese Leader (ABC News)

The Xi Jinping era began in China today with a smile and an apology.

Xi and his six fellow Chinese Politburo Standing Committee members were supposed to meet the media and the world at 11 a.m. Beijing time but did not walk out onto the dais inside the Great Hall of the People until minutes before noon. The all-powerful Standing Committee is China's top decision-making body.

"Sorry to have kept you all waiting," Xi casually quipped to the gathering of both Chinese and foreign media before launching into his nationally televised speech. "It's a great pleasure to meet with friends from the press."

Casual is not a term commonly associated with the upper echelons of Chinese leadership. But there was Xi, in his first speech as the Chinese leader, cutting at once a commanding yet relaxed presence in front of the world's cameras.

It was in sharp contrast with the formality of his serious and dour immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who remains a cipher to most even after 10 years in office.

That doesn't mean a lot is known about Xi. Indeed, many Chinese citizens know little more than his name. Before today they would probably more readily recognized his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous folk singer in China, than him.

But what is clear is that as of today, he is now the most powerful man in China.

Xi, 59, was elected today by the Chinese Communist Party elite as its new party leader and also named as the commander-in-chief of the Chinese military. He, however, will not be named president until March during a session of China's rubber-stamp congress.

This is only the second time in modern Chinese history that there has been a relatively peaceful and orderly transition of power. The first was 10 years ago when Hu took over from Jiang Zemin.

Breaking with tradition, Hu relinquished his military position today to Xi as well. In the past, previous leaders have held on to their commander-in-chief role for years after they leave office. Hu, despite becoming party boss in 2002, wasn't able to consolidate power until 2004 when Jiang finally stepped down from his military post.

Xi is a "princeling," a term reserved for a generation born into Communist Party royalty. His father, Xi Zhongxun, fought alongside Mao Zedong and later in life helped to push for market reforms in China.

Throughout his career, Xi Jinping has been a careful politician, taking care not to offend and toeing the Party line. Little is known about his political beliefs.

Early in his career, Xi made a journey to visit the America heartland to learn about hog farming on the banks of the Mississippi in Muscatine, Iowa. There he stayed at the home of Sarah Lande.

Lande, now considered an "old friend" of Xi's, spoke with ABC News when she was in Beijing early November.

"I remember a warm smile, a competent person who was eager to be there for his country," Lande told ABC News. "He was eager to feed his people, eager to see America. He said he read books about the Mississippi River and Mark Twain."

Understanding Chinese leaders are akin to reading tea leaves. If little is known about Xi, his fellow Standing Committee members are every bit as unknown. Together they will govern China by consensus as near peers.

The appointments of Xi Jinping and second-in-line Li Keqiang have been a foregone conclusion since they were both named onto the Standing Committee back in 2007. They have been leaders-in-waiting for the past five years.

The rest of the Standing Committee has been a source of speculation for months, especially since the spectacular fall of Bo Xilai earlier this year when his wife was accused and later found guilty of murdering a British businessman. Bo was expecting to be standing there on the dais today as a member of the Standing Committee.

The final lineup was unknown until they walked out with Xi.

Xi's colleagues for at least the next five years will be (in the order of seniority):

Li Keqiang, 57 is expected to be China's next premier, in charge of governing the world's most populous nation. Li is a trained lawyer, speaks fluent English and attended Peking University as a friend and contemporary of some of the pro-democracy leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He remained loyal to the Party while seeing many of his friends flee into exile. He is a protégé of Hu Jintao and is seen as a liberal, reform-minded member of the Chinese leadership.

Zhang Dejiang, 66, was appointed to run the western Chinese megacity of Chongqing after Bo Xilai's ouster. He studied economics in North Korea and for the past few years has overseen China's telecommunications and energy industries as vice premier. He is expected to be the Chairman of the National People's Congress in the new leadership.

Yu Zhengsheng, 67, is the party boss of Shanghai. Yu is a "princeling" with close ties to both former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. He is credited with helping to launch China's best-known brands overseas: Tsingtao Beer and Haier appliances. His political career was able to survive after his brother defected to the United States in the mid-1980s.

Liu Yunshan, 65, is Communist Party's propaganda chief. In a previous career, he was a journalist for the state-run Xinhua News Agency and worked in PR. He will most likely continue to oversee China's heavy-handed media censorship machine.

Wang Qishan, 64, another "princeling," is well known to U.S. leaders and has worked closely with his American counterparts U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson in setting up strategic and economic talks between the two countries. Wang has developed a reputation as a problem solver especially when he was appointed as Beijing mayor at the height of SARS epidemic. He opted for decisive quarantines and transparency instead of covering it up like his predecessor.

Paulson once called him as "decisive and inquisitive" and said that he possessed a "wicked sense of humor." Like Li, Wang is considered one of the more reform-minded leaders, although he might have little time to focus on that since the party tasked him today with investigating its own as head of the anti-graft commission.

And last but not least, Zhang Gaoli, 66, is the party boss of the affluent port city of Tianjin. He is known to maintain a low profile but has steadily worked up the ranks of the party getting key postings as party boss of the Southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen and the coastal province of Shandong.

The Standing Committee will serve a five-year term and many China watchers have noted that by 2017, all the members, apart from Xi and Li, will be past the mandatory retirement age. There might be a whole new leadership in a few years time.

Xi's speech struck a surprising populist and unifying tone.

"The people are sources of our strength," Xi said. "We deeply know that the capability of any individual is limited, but as long as we unite as one, there is no difficulty we cannot overcome. An individual only has limited time in office, but there's never a limit to serve the people heart and soul."

Xi and his colleague have a lot of immediate challenges ahead of them. There is growing public anger and unrest over everything from corruption to pollution. There has been a spike in self-immolations in China's Tibetan regions to protest the Communist Party's heavy-handed rule.

Then there is the China's economy. It is still growing at a rate many other countries in the world would envy, but it is beginning to show signs of a legitimate slowdown.

Such factors threaten what the Communist Party craves most: stability.

At the end of his speech, Xi reached out to the media in the room, especially the foreign press. It was something his predecessor never did.

"China needs to know more about the world, the world needs to know more about China," he said.

Xi clearly sought to make a first impression, signaling perhaps a break from the stuffy rigidity of the past decade.

Right now it is too early to tell what kind of leader Xi will be. Not only does the world need to know more about Xi, but China still needs to know more about him.

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