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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 06:57 GMT 07:57 UK
China's new faces set stage for 2012
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Xi Jinping (left) and Li Keqiang
Xi Jinping (left) and Li Keqiang are seen as leadership contenders
Two men who are virtually unknown to ordinary Chinese people - Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang - will probably become the country's next top leaders.

They smiled and stood ramrod straight as they were introduced to China, and the world, at a news conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

But despite their promotion, there is still plenty of time for things to go wrong before their expected elevation to the top posts in 2012.

It is still possible for dark horses to appear in the next five years, the game is still open
Dr Steven Tsang
Oxford University
China is not good at making sure anointed leaders actually make it to the top of the political pile - several have died before being promoted.

The two men were introduced along with other members of the standing committee of China's politburo, a new line-up chosen at the end of the Chinese Communist Party's 17th Congress.

Mr Xi, 54, and Mr Li, 52, will form the core of the fifth generation of communist leaders that have ruled China since 1949.

Analysts believe they will become China's next leaders because they are the youngest new members of the standing committee, the apex of power.

Mr Xi's position in the committee - he is ranked 6th compared to Mr Li's 7th - also suggests he will become China's next president in 2012.

He even walked out just ahead of Mr Li into the conference hall.

But it is impossible to say for sure who will get the top job.

'Still open'

While Mr Xi's elevation to the committee was widely predicted last week, few people were linking him with such a promotion several months ago.

Despite nearly 60 years in power, the Communists have not yet managed to fully institutionalise their sway over China.

There is no rule, regulation or precedent that cannot be broken or overturned - and no heir apparent that cannot fall foul of a changing political wind or another, stronger candidate.

Liu Shaoqi, former heir to Mao Zedong, is believed to have died in prison in the 1960s after being forced from office in the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic period of virtual civil war.

More recently Zhao Ziyang, the party's former general secretary - a position now held by President Hu Jintao - died while under house arrest in 2005.

"It is still possible for dark horses to appear in the next five years," says Dr Steven Tsang, of Oxford University. "The game is still open."

Efforts were made at the just-concluded congress to formalise the selection process and make it more open.

Members of the party's central committee were apparently allowed to vote, in secret, for the new politburo and its Standing Committee. However, the list of candidates was approved beforehand.

'Princelings'

Directly behind Mr Xi, Mr Li and their standing committee colleagues are the other, ordinary politburo members.

A look at this group shows that China is still a country ruled by people rather than rules, where personal connections matter more than official rank.

President Hu Jintao addresses the congress on 21 October 2007
President Hu Jintao has increased his power during the congress
This congress has seen the rise of the so-called "princelings", officials who are the offspring of veteran revolutionaries.

Xi Jinping is one example. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was the man who helped pioneer China's Special Economic Zones, the country's first efforts to open up to the outside world.

This group also includes politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang, and ordinary politburo members Bo Xilai and Liu Yandong.

"The princelings have gradually come to the surface," says Zheng Yongnian, of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University.

"The party trusts them because it knows they do not want to see the regime that their fathers built collapse."

But speculation about future leaders, and talk of princelings, has perhaps overshadowed the main outcome of the congress - Mr Hu's increased power.

The incorporation of his "scientific concept of development" into the party constitution shows this, according to Dr Tsang.

"Mao had his ideology written in from the very beginning," he says. "Other leaders had to wait until they passed away or stepped down from the top leadership."

Mr Hu has managed that feat mid-way through his 10-year stint at the top.





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