By Keith B. Richburg
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; A6
BEIJING - China's Communist Party Central Committee ended its annual meeting Monday by elevating Vice President Xi Jinping to a vice chairmanship of the powerful Central Military Commission, apparently cementing his role as the country's next president and demonstrating that the closely guarded succession process remains on track.
At the same time, the conference ended with only the vaguest mention of political reform, largely ignoring a recent small but growing clamor for more freedom and less news media censorship coming from a group of a dozen party elders, a hundred human rights activists and dissidents, newspapers, and even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who vowed this month to push for reform "until the last day of my life."
A statement issued after the conference said "vigorous yet steady efforts should be made to promote political restructuring," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, but the statement gave no further details.
Xi, who is from Shaanxi province and has held top party jobs in Fujian province and briefly in Shanghai, was long assumed to be the successor to President Hu Jintao. Hu will step down as Communist Party leader in 2012 and as president the following year.
But there was speculation that rivals were still vying for the post, particularly after Xi did not win the coveted assignment to the military commission after last year's Central Committee meeting. Hu won a vice chairmanship of the military commission three years before he took full control in China, and it was thought that Xi, as Hu's annointed successor, would follow the same path.
Xi's promotion to the military commission ended for now speculation about a power struggle. The move was seen here as the critical last step for Xi because China's party - not its government - controls the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army.
Xi's elevation marks the rise of China's "princelings," the children of top party elders who are now moving to the forefront of the leadership. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of China's first-generation revolutionary leaders and an early advocate for market reforms, perhaps best known for presiding over the birth of the now-prosperous Shenzhen special economic zone. Xi Zhongxun also had a close relationship with senior Tibetan religious figures such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama during the early 1950s, before the Dalai Lama fled China in 1959.
The princelings as a group are thought to be more attuned to the needs of modern China's new business entrepreneurs, its burgeoning middle class and the prosperous coastal areas, including Guangdong province and Shanghai. In that way, they differ from the current leader, Hu, who has tried to tune his political antenna to the rural areas and problems of income disparities.
"Xi Jinping has a lot of friends in the private sector," said Cheng Li, research director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution, who has extensively studied China's leadership. "He is known more for his market-friendly approach in Fujian and Shanghai and not for anything on political reform."
Xi also has a reputation as a blunt speaker. During a February 2009 stop in Mexico, he told an audience of overseas Chinese that foreigners "with full stomachs" shouldn't interfere in China's internal affairs, saying that "China doesn't export hunger and poverty."
Unlike the low-key Hu, "Xi Jinping likes to comment and sometimes offend people," Li said.
Another difference is that for the first time since the days of Chairman Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, China will have a first lady who is well known. The wives of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu were rarely seen in public. But Xi is married to Peng Liyuan, a star singer for the People's Liberation Army since she was in her late teens. Indeed, for most of Xi's career, Peng, who routinely performs in front of hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers during the annual Spring Festival television show, has been far more famous than her husband.
Staff writer John Pomfret contributed to this report.