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Analysis: Why China's leadership change matters

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Next month Chinese President Hu Jintao and most of the Communist Party leadership will begin to hand over power to younger colleagues in a once-a-decade political transition. Over coming months, scores of leaders across the party, the government and the military will be replaced in a painstakingly choreographed and at times divisive change-over at the top of the world's second-largest economy, which is growing in diplomatic and military strength.

Why does the change matter for the world?

China's politics are secretive, so policy-making seems like a black box. It doesn't help that Chinese leaders, unlike Western politicians, tend to be reserved in public, giving them a bland sameness. Still, China has been a global success story, with its rapid growth lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and buoying the world economy. But its juggernaut economy of the past two decades is flagging just as a new middle class and tens of millions of rural migrants expect a better life.

Will the new leaders embark on meaningful change?

It's hard to say, given the closed-door world of Chinese politics. Ordinary Chinese are just as much in the dark about new policies as the rest of the world. An educated guess is that any change will come slowly. China is ruled by a collective leadership whose members decide policy by consensus.

Who are the new leaders?

Though nothing has been formally announced, Vice President Xi Jinping will become party general secretary after the National Party Congress that opens Nov. 8. Vice Premier Li Keqiang is expected to be named premier, the government head with chief responsibility for the economy. Xi and Li have been shoo-ins for the jobs since they became the youngest members of the current leadership in 2007. Beyond that, the leadership roster gets murky.

What do we know about the new leaders?

Xi, 59, and Li, 57, come from different backgrounds. Xi is a member of the red nobility; his father was a founding figure in the communist revolution. Li is from a family of midlevel officials. Both labored in the countryside when Mao Zedong's radical policies shut down schools. Their university and professional lives have been spent entirely in the era for market reforms, a time of relative prosperity and interaction with the rest of the world. Little is known about their policy preferences.

Do they get along?

The two have worked together in the current leadership, but bare-knuckled infighting is common, especially this year. Rising political star Bo Xilai, who ran the metropolis of Chongqing, was purged after a longtime aide exposed that Bo's wife murdered a British businessman over a business dispute. Bo is under investigation for crimes linked to the slaying, corruption and other wrongdoing. But his real transgression may have been his naked ambition to join the new leadership.

What will really change?

The incoming leaders face big issues, including rampant corruption, strained U.S. relations and a yawning income gap between the rich and the rest. While the system works against fast decisions, personalities do matter. President Hu is often described as reserved to an extreme, and he has had difficulty forging relations with foreign leaders. Xi is described by American officials as comfortable and self-confident, and Li speaks English fluently enough to chat with visiting dignitaries without a translator. The style of leadership may change even if the substance does not.

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