Images: Chinese politicians
Greg Baker  /  AP
China's rising politicians Li Keqiang, top right, and Xi Jinping, bottom left, chat with fellow senior party members during the opening ceremony of the 17th Communist Party Congress held in Beijing on Monday.
updated 10/16/2007 4:33:18 PM ET 2007-10-16T20:33:18

China’s ruling Communist Party offered the media a rare glimpse of two rising political stars Tuesday, giving them a chance to show themselves as self-effacing, businesslike and worthy for promotion to the senior leadership.

The public appearances by Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a major party congress were likely no coincidence, given the secretive party’s penchant for carefully stage-managed public events. It came as senior party members held closed-door discussions on appointments to the Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power.

Li, the 52-year-old party head of the industrial province of Liaoning, and Xi, the 54-year-old party chief in the commercial heart of Shanghai, met separately with rank-and-file congress members, with foreign and state-run Chinese media on hand.

“My main mission at present is to work, but also to learn while working,” said Li, animatedly gesturing in a dark gray suit as he answered questions from reporters while meeting with other delegates from Liaoning in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

On the other side of the cavernous building with Shanghai delegates, Xi, looking like the CEO of a major corporation, said the city had yet to live up to Beijing’s expectations. “We have yet to achieve everything the center has required of us.”

Contenders for leadership positions
The brief encounters were telling, if not revealing. The party congress, held once every five years, sets broad policy goals and apportions senior leadership posts. At the top of this congress’s agenda is the promotion of several officials in their 50s to replace 64-year-old President Hu Jintao and other leaders when they step down five years from now.

Li and Xi are said to be leading contenders. Li, an associate of Hu’s since the two worked together in the Communist Youth League 25 years ago, is said to be Hu’s favorite but is facing resistance from other powerful party leaders. Xi, the son of a revolutionary veteran, is a compromise candidate, liked for his competence and a heritage of political reliability.

Their political fates likely will not be known until Sunday or Monday, when the congress closes and Hu escorts the new leadership for a brief appearance before the media.

Both Li and Xi were careful to make reference to Hu or his policies, while avoiding discussion of personal questions.

Asked about his greatest accomplishments in office, Li gave Beijing the credit. “Liaoning’s achievements, I think, have come through the party center’s leadership and the hard work of all our province’s people toiling together,” he said.

Xi, whose predecessor in Shanghai was toppled in a corruption scandal, was even more cautious, promising to use Hu’s “theory of scientific development and bring it to its full fruition.” The catchphrase refers to Hu’s signature policy of spreading economic growth more evenly to ease a growing rich-poor gap and the protests and social tensions that it has ignited.

Being an anointed successor was once perilous in Chinese communist politics. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong cashiered two, one dying in a plane crash, the other under arrest. Reform architect Deng Xiaoping tried to create more order, forcing aging leaders to retire and appointing a series of younger officials in the 1980s, two of whom he fired.

Deng engineered Hu’s ascent into the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992, giving him an air of legitimacy that he carefully nurtured until being appointed in 2002.

Speculation abounds
Still, discussion of promotions or personnel issues remains fraught with danger in an authoritarian system where advancement is based on avoiding mistakes and cultivating older leaders.

While speculation on the Internet and among Beijing’s political classes abounds about the new leadership lineup, the current congress is meant to show the party as unified under Hu.

Chinese newspapers, all of them state-run, carried virtually the same front page photos of Hu delivering the conference’s opening address on Monday beneath banner headlines in patriotic red ink. Another rising star touted for higher office on Monday summarily dismissed a question from a reporter about his chances of joining the leadership.

“That is baseless,” said Jiangsu province party chief Li Yuanchao, 56. “Like a colleague of mine said, that’s rumor, and since it’s rumor, I won’t respond to it.”

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