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China’s Party hangs on to status quo

Enter Xi Jinping. Exit hope for reform.

HONG KONG — After a long and unexplained delay, China’s new top leaders strolled out stiffly over the red-carpeted dais in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

The first words of Xi Jinping, the man long anticipated to take over as China’s president, were an apology to reporters for making them wait — an uncharacteristically personal gesture after the highly scripted, rigid and opaque ceremonies of the 18th Party Congress that finished on Wednesday.

But while Xi’s speech was both warmer and more natural than his wooden predecessor, Hu Jintao, the seven men who will together rule China gave analysts little hope for bold reform.

“This is the Brezhnevization of the Party,” says David Zweig, a China politics expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Instead of having guts and stepping forward with reform, they’re going to try and hold on.”

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The composition of the Politburo Standing Committee — reduced this term from nine members to seven — is older than anticipated, and seemingly designed to preserve the status quo. All but Xi, 59, and incoming Premier Li Keqiang, 57, are over 64 years old, though you might not know it from their identical, dyed-black pompadours.

On the outs are the contenders believed to be most in favor of reform, Wang Yang and Li Yunchao. The only woman rumored to be in the running for the Standing Committee also didn’t make the cut.

More from GlobalPost: Profiles of Politburo potentials

In their place are men more committed to the current system: Liu Yunshan, the chief of China’s vast propaganda and censorship program; Zhang Gaoli, party boss of Tianjin, a city whose growth was fueled by a real estate bubble; Zhang Dejiang, a graduate of a North Korean university and a proponent of huge, state-owned companies; Yu Zhengsheng, party of boss of Shanghai, and a “princeling”; and Wang Qishan, a financial guru who will head up the Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign. 

The allies and protégés of outgoing President Hu Jintao also seem to have lost out. Instead, the faction based around 87-year-old Jiang Zemin — who was rumored dead last year, but who continues to play puppet-master from behind the scenes — claimed a majority of the top posts.   

Zweig says that when he learned about the new crop of leaders he became “depressed.”

“I think [the Communists] want to protect the wealthy families,” he says. “They are favoring stability over change. They figure that there’s going to be a lot of difficult times ahead, and they want to have calmer, older people in charge.”

This once-a-decade political transition comes as the Communist Party faces some of its greatest challenges: corruption, slowing economic growth, widespread cynicism and distrust of the government.  

In his speech before the media, Xi Jinping acknowledged the difficulties before them.

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“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 bureaucratism caused by some Party officials,” the leader said.

Xi is arriving in office with somewhat greater power than his predecessor, as he also assumes the role of the head of China’s military — a position that outgoing president Hu Jintao gave up, effectively relinquishing all his formal posts.

Though little about his views is certain, Xi’s relatively relaxed and casual demeanor was seen as a welcome change. Some commentators speculated that his manner could help smooth foreign relations, or at least set a new example for Chinese officials.

More from GlobalPost: China, where the Party’s at

“Xi’s speech was more audience-oriented and had a less bureaucratic tone — a new style,” He Peirong, a Chinese activist, wrote on Twitter.

“To use an American political metaphor, Xi Jinping looks like a guy you’d want to have a beer with,” says Bill Bishop, an analyst and investor in Beijing.

However, three times in his speech, Xi said the Party should aim for the “renewal of the Chinese nation” — a sign, perhaps, of a more assertive, nationalistic tone in Xi’s term.

One surprise to experts was that Li Keqiang, the incoming premier, is ranked higher than his predecessor, Wen Jiabao. While many had seen Li as potentially less potent and forceful as his predecessors, the fact that he is ranked No. 2 in the Party, instead of No. 3, suggests that he may have won more control over the economy.

Whatever happens now, in five years’ time, Li and Xi will likely be welcoming a new group of colleagues to the Standing Committee. With a mandatory retirement age of 68, five of the seven new members of the Politburo Standing Committee will be replaced, opening up more potential seats for reformers.   

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Still, the short-term prospects aren’t bright, says Zweig. 

“I think holding steady is the strategy for five years,” says Zweig. “But you could have a crisis, one of these guys could die — they’re all over 65, after all.

“This is not a pro-reform leadership.”