China's cipher takes the stage
The public unveiling this week of China's Politburo Standing Committee, the group of politicians who will control the country for the next 10 years, has been the subject of intense worldwide scrutiny, and a good deal of speculation. Who are these seven individuals, and what are their proclivities and their agendas? Are they reformist or hardliners, and how will they handle the sizeable domestic and international challenges that await them when they officially assume office next year?
The Chinese Communist Party forsook the messy and sometimes brutal leadership transitions that characterised other hardline communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and its satellites some time ago - or at least has managed to better disguise it. It has clearly delineated terms of office (10 years) for its ruling elite and the transition in senior leadership is now well sign-posted. It has been public knowledge since the 17th CCP Congress in 2007 that Xi Jinping, a protege of former president Jiang Zemin, would become the party general secretary and that he would succeed Hu Jintao as president. Mr Xi will be the first of China's fifth generation of Communist Party leaders, and the first princeling (as the children of former leaders are known) to assume the paramount leadership position. His fellow Politburo Standing Committee members are similarly well connected, with many considered proteges of Mr Hu, Mr Jiang and other former leaders.
Mr Xi is generally considered to be a consensus builder, with close ties to the military and the business worlds. There are suggestions, moreover (based on a recent meeting with a party insider regarded as a standard-bearer for liberal reform within the party), that Mr Xi is a closet reformer. Li Keqiang, the presumptive premier, is supposed to have been close to democracy advocates as a student, and has urged more equitable economic growth focused on welfare issues such as food safety, healthcare and affordable housing.
To all intents and appearances then, this new leadership team might be considered progressive, and perhaps more liberal-minded that its predecessors. All appear capable of building on China's economic achievements over the past two decades while engineering the reforms needed to address existing and future challenges. These are, by any measure, considerable: the economy needs to be decentralised and further opened up, social inequities reduced and corruption tackled. Environmental damage needs repairing. For this to happen, however, the party will have to place much more emphasis on transparency and accountability, and the rule of law. The international challenges are equally daunting. Mr Xi and his colleagues must rectify strains in China's relations with its neighbours caused by territorial disputes and military skirmishes while trying to defuse economic tensions with the US.
The Communist Party's leadership theoretically has immense power and authority with which to drive and shape Chinese society, but there are significant checks on its ability to drive those changes. One is the sheer size and complexity of the country. While Beijing appears to be the puppet master, the reality is that regional governments are also pulling the strings. The second is business and institutional interests. It is said that the ''Iron Quadrangle'' - the large state-owned enterprises, the internal security apparatus, the military and the conservative wing of the CCP - was the major reason the reforms championed by Hu Jintao stalled or were delayed.
For all so-called inside information on Mr Xi and his connections, we know little about him. Some commentators have called him a cipher, a trait that may have helped him get where he is today. In a speech on Chinese state TV after his ordination, Mr Xi identified the need to resolve ''many pressing problems'', including corruption. But then one would have expected such anodyne sentiments from a newly anointed ruler addressing his nation. Mr Xi's ability to build support within the Iron Quadrangle and the bureaucracy will determine whether he fulfils his mission. That consensus-building will take time.
Ordinary Chinese would be unwise to invest too much hope in changes in the short term. The ruling elite has more than once demonstrated that it regards growing the economy and meeting people's expectation of a materially better life as its primary goal. This the party has done amazingly well, if at the cost of a widening social divide, severe environmental problems and authoritarian stagnation. This may be a new standing committee, but it appears unlikely to differ significantly from the preceding in either ideology or emphasis.