In The Wizard of Oz, the ruler behind the curtain in the Emerald City turns out to be not an imposing mystical force but a mere mortal—and a rather unprepossessing one at that. On Nov. 15 in the heart of Beijing, just a short walk from the Forbidden City, a line of seven men—all with neatly coiffed, dyed black hair—emerged from behind a giant screen adorned with red-crowned cranes. Thus at shortly before noon was the world introduced to a powerful clique, headed by Xi Jinping, that will rule China. The new Politburo Standing Committee, as the clutch of seven is called, was unveiled at the Communist-era Great Hall of the People, nearly an hour later than was initially expected. First to stride the crimson-carpeted stage was Xi, the new General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and longtime presumed heir of outgoing leader Hu Jintao. But even if Xi walked out first, he is only the first among equals in a country that has traded the personality cult of the Chairman Mao days for a collective-leadership style. In China, there is not just one wizard, but seven.
The new men in charge are, in the order they walked onto the stage, Xi, followed by Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli. Technically speaking, the selection of the Standing Committee was conducted by a Communist Party Central Committee with 205 members, itself chosen by the 2,000 or so delegates to the 18th Party Congress (representing 82.6 million Chinese Communist Party members) that wrapped up its week-long summit on Nov. 14. In reality, the Standing Committee’s composition was more likely the result of intense back room negotiations between forces loyal to Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin, among myriad other factions that belie the unified reputation of the party that has ruled China for 63 years.
Where will the seven men—who strode carefully to seven spots pre-marked with black tape on the stage—take the People’s Republic? Frankly, we don’t really know. These men have risen to the top in part because of their ability to hide their personal quirks under a cloak of Communist secrecy. But there are a few things we can divine from the septet. First, the new Standing Committee is jammed with princelings, the offspring of Communist Party elders who grew up accustomed to the privileges of power, despite some tumultuous years during the Cultural Revolution when the tide turned against these coddled scions. Being a member of the crimson aristocracy doesn’t dictate a Standing Committee member’s politics. Zhang Dejiang, who walked third in line, is a North Korea-trained economist, while Wang Qishan, No. 6, is considered more of a market-oriented reformer. Still, one thing unites most of these princelings: they are acolytes of former party chief Jiang, who at 86 years old still retains surprising influence in party politics.
Outgoing leader Hu, whose faction is composed of cadres who made their way up the ranks through the Communist Youth League, appears to have only one direct ally in the new Standing Committee lineup: Li Keqiang, who replaces Wen Jiabao as Premier. Liu Yunshan, who presided over the country’s propaganda portfolio for a decade, is associated with both Jiang and Hu’s camps.
During Hu’s reign, the Standing Committee included nine men. The trimming of two members presumably occurred because it was so hard to get nine men to agree on anything quickly. It’s a fine line between consensus-making and leadership gridlock, especially in an era where China will have to make rapid decisions to steer a slowing economy.
Xi’s ascension marked a break with a decade of leadership by the ultimate colorless Communist cadre. When Hu Jintao took power a decade ago, some hoped that he might usher in political reforms to match China’s economic opening. Those hopes were dashed; over the past 10 years, Hu felt more like a Party hologram than a flesh-and-blood leader. Only twice in his tenure did he give substantive live speeches to the Chinese people. By contrast, in his first remarks as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party on Thursday, the broad-shouldered 59-year-old Xi cracked a spontaneous joke—apologizing for keeping the assembled press waiting, a comment that was not part of his official remarks—and spoke naturally. His delivery contrasted with the slow and emphatic whine of ideologically tinged speech that mars so many Chinese leaders’ speaking styles, most notably Hu’s.
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Xi, although certainly glorifying the Communist Party’s role in renewing a wounded nation more than six decades ago, sounded like a real person speaking, not some ideological automaton. In his relatively expansive remarks, Xi did not mention Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought or other Party buzzwords that were parroted ad nauseum during the 18th Party Congress. He underlined the fact that corruption distressed the Chinese people and acknowledged that jobs, medical care, education and the environment were among their other concerns. Xi also underscored the fact that China was composed of many ethnic groups that “lived in harmony”—a fact belied by the recent series of self-immolations by Tibetans living on the high plateau.
Beyond the introduction to the new Standing Committee, Thursday elicited one more important change in China: Xi was named as the civilian leader of the country’s military. The leader of China holds three roles: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President. The last role is the least important, and Xi is expected to assume it early next year at the National People’s Congress. Jiang kept the military role for two years after Hu was named the Party chief. But Hu handing over the military title may be a sign that the new Chinese leadership wants to show a commitment to seamless transitions. After all, this is only the second peaceful power shift in the history of the People’s Republic.
Armed with these two new titles, Xi was in a celebratory mood, advising the gathered press to do their part in furthering cross-cultural awareness. “Friends from the press, just as China needs to learn more about the world, so does the world need to learn more about China,” he said in a jocular tone. “I hope you will continue your efforts to deepen mutual understanding between China and the world.” Then he grinned widely and waved in a distinctly non-wooden way. And with that simple speech, Xi may have given the world more of a warm impression of the new man in charge in China than Hu did in his decade at the helm.
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