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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 13:36 GMT
Q&A: China's new leadership
A new generation of leaders has taken power in China, prompting the most sweeping changes in a decade. BBC News Online looks at what it may mean.

Why has the leadership changed now?

China's all-powerful Communist Party met in November 2002 for a key Congress.

Several senior leaders, including then-Party chief Jiang Zemin, had passed the official retirement age of 70. They agreed to make way for younger men, the so-called "fourth generation" of leaders since the Communists took power in 1949.

The new leadership was approved by China's largely ceremonial National People's Congress in March 2003.

How the new men tackle China's many social and economic problems will affect a whole generation. Their views will also influence China's dealings with the world.

So who are the new men?

China's new President and Communist Party chief is a so far-colourless man called Hu Jintao.

As leader-in-waiting, Mr Hu took care to promote the views of his seniors rather than his own.

Very little is known about what he thinks himself, but he must be a consummate politician to have survived so long in such a precarious role.

A potential rival to Mr Hu could be Zeng Qinghong, the close adviser and henchman to Mr Jiang.

Mr Zeng is one of the best-connected young leaders and is also reportedly a masterful political schemer.

But it remains unclear if he will do Mr Jiang's bidding or emerge in his own right as a central figure.

Mr Jiang is likely to remain extremely influential, though he may step back from day-to-day decisions.

He has kept the chairmanship of the commission which oversees China's armed forces, suggesting he also intends to keep a grip on his favoured areas of foreign relations, including China's relationship with rival Taiwan.

Wen Jiabao, an accomplished administrator and technocrat, has been given the job of running the economy.

But what difference will the new leaders make? After all, they are still Communist Party members.

It is true that, for a while, we may not see much difference at all, especially since the new leadership will want to stress that China remains stable.

But once they have established themselves, the new line-up will be closely watched on two hot topics - the possibility of political reform, and Taiwan.

Political reform has been a taboo subject since the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings of pro-democracy demonstrators.

But as a younger generation takes over - many of them more exposed to international currents of opinion than their predecessors - there are hopes they will be more open-minded.

Few analysts expect change to be sweeping. It seems highly unlikely that the Party will consider giving up its grip on power by allowing competitive and fair elections, even at the lowest level.

But it is possible that the new leadership could tolerate more criticism and a freer press, especially if it helped root out rampant corruption, seen by many members as a threat to the Party's legitimacy.

On Taiwan, which China still views as a renegade province, there looks to be less chance of change.

Analysts expect the new leadership to be just as suspicious of Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, and even more wary of taking any risks that could lose the diplomatic initiative.

Will China's relations with the rest of the world be affected?

Probably not.

Certainly the country's commitment to economic reform and international trade is not in any doubt. The Party sees the last two decades of growth as its biggest crowd-pleaser.

But there could be a period of uncertainty while the new leadership gets established.

The likely line-up has had very little international exposure. Mr Hu has met US President George W Bush and some European leaders, and although he was reported to have a very good grasp of international affairs, he has no experience as a top-level negotiator.

He may therefore be swayed by advice from Mr Jiang and other Party elders, especially in the event of any crisis.





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