Equally ubiquitous has been vice premier Li Keqiang, widely tipped to become the next prime minister. Huge color photos of him have appeared a half dozen times in recent weeks, shaking hands with Central Bank staffers, sitting with ethnic minority villagers in Ningxia and greeting female factory workers in Tianjin.
The higher media profiles of Xi and Li — now virtually eclipsing President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao — are considered part of a carefully orchestrated rollout to present the new leadership tandem to the public. “It’s a collective decision to help consolidate the power of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, “and to make the transition more orderly and prepared.”
A vist to Washington by Xi next week will add to the choreographed effort. But beneath the top two jobs, little else seems settled, or at least is known publicly, about a shadowy selection process that takes place largely behind closed doors and involving the most senior of China’s Communist Party leaders and ex-officials.
The continued jockeying is for positions on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, considered the most powerful body in the country’s ruling structure. Seven of the current nine members are due to change — only Xi and Li will retain their positions. Who will occupy the remaining spots, or even whether the Standing Committee might be expanded to 11 seats, is subject to an ongoing guessing game.
The fragility of the process was underscored by reports that Wang Lijun, vice mayor of the sprawling western municipality of Chongqing, was placed under official investigation, after visiting the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu on Feb. 6.
Wang, with a reputation as an anti-crime fighter, was allied to Chongqing’s Party Chief Bo Xilai, considered a top contender for a Standing Committee seat, possibly inheriting the portfolio that would place him in charge of China’s security apparatus. But the loss of one of Bo’s top deputies — and unconfirmed rumors that Wang may have tried to seek political asylum — have thrown off all predictions about Bo’s future.
Beyond the intrigue of who’s in and who’s out, there are larger questions over whether the new leadership team led by Xi will mean a change of course in China’s policy direction.
Will the economy continue to open up, particularly to foreign competition? Will there be any change in China’s regional policy, including sometimes tense relations with some neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China Sea? Will there be a new détente with the United States, or more confrontation over bilateral and global concerns? How will the new leaders deal with growing social tensions — protests over land rights, worker strikes and mounting unrest in the Tibetan region and among ethnic Uighurs in western Xinjiang province?