BEIJING, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- The most important development in China in 2012 was the completion of the Communist Party's once-a-decade regime change that brought to the helm Xi Jinping, 59, an economic reformer who, along with other six members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, will lead the country in the coming decade.
But their task won't be easy as they face tough challenges in areas that affect the lives of the country's 1.3 billion people. The challenges include a slowing export-driven economy following years of explosive double-digit growth that made China the world's second largest economy after the United States, widening income disparity, rampant official corruption, complex foreign policy questions such as dealing with the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, growing public demand at home for openness and transparency, and ethnic tensions as witnessed by the spate of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule of their land and violence between the Han and Uighrs.
China's official news agency Xinhua, quoting experts, said many of the current party officials were born in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and grew up in a totally different historic and social environment from their predecessors, leading to a different administration concept and approach.
"Unlike the founding fathers of the People's Republic of China and previous generations of leading officials who grew up in wartime, the new leadership, mostly born around the founding of New China, grew up in peace time," the report said.
The Communist Party has ruled China under a one-party system since the founding of the PRC in 1949.
Xi, son of Xi Zhongxun, a hero of the Chinese revolution, will be assisted by second-in-command Li Keqiang, 57, along with Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan, the five newly chosen members of the Standing Committee. The reduction in the size of the committee to seven from the previous nine should help Xi to deal with fewer dissenting voices.
Xi, currently the general secretary of the Communist Party as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission, will also become China's president in March, succeeding Hu Jintao, while Li, an economist viewed as a liberal, will replace outgoing Wen Jiabao as premier.
Comments from both Xi and Li only days after the conclusion of the party congress may provide hints to what can be expected from them.
For his first official trip after taking charge as party chief, Xi chose Guangdong, the southern province close to Hong Kong where China's market-based reforms were first put into effect three decades ago.
In his meeting with business leaders, which the official media described a political signal, Xi called for accelerating economic restructuring through deepening reform and enhancing law enforcement.
Similarly, Li Keqiang, while chairing a conference, promised additional reforms and further opening up for sustainable economic growth to improve the lives of the people.
"We are also aware that the current reforms have entered a 'fortified zone' and a 'deep-water zone'... we have to face the challenges and break all the systematic obstacles that block scientific development," he said, while stressing market economy means an economy under the rule of law and that reforms should abide by laws.
At the party congress, the nearly 2,200 delegates, representing more than 80 million Chinese identified as members of the Communist Party, amended the party's constitution. The amendment said reform and opening up will highlight "the path to a stronger China" through sustainable development.
"China's reforms are not impeccable. Some people turn nostalgic or even wish for a stop to reforms. But at this moment, refusing to reform will only put China on the path to a dead end. Stagnation and going backwards in reforms are no way out," Xin Ming, professor at the Central Committee's Party School, told the official Xinhua News Agency.
In the same report, Xinhua said many in the country are upset or perplexed by the country's social ills including "inferior food, yawning wealth gap, environmental woes, corruption, and inequitable access to education, healthcare and social security."
The November party congress also helped put to rest, at least temporarily, a number of embarrassing political scandals that culminated in the expulsion from party membership of disgraced Bo Xilai, once a rising political star, and the imprisonment of his equally prominent wife, accused of murder in the death of a British businessman. Bo faces corruption and abuse of power charges.
Security during the party congress in Beijing was extraordinarily tight, highlighting the security concerns of the authorities in view of ethnic tensions and growing dissidence.
In his keynote address at the opening of the congress, outgoing President Hu warned alienation of average Chinese citizens posed the greatest risk to the party, and called for maintaining close ties with the public. He also said the party should appoint officials based on merit and select officials on the basis of both their moral integrity and professional competence.
Both the incoming and outgoing leaders also spoke repeatedly about fighting corruption, which continues to plague China at various levels despite persistent government crackdowns.
Hu was blunt in his warning about corruption.
"If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state," he said. "All those who violate party discipline and state laws, whoever they are and whatever power or official positions they have, must be brought to justice without mercy."
Wen said fighting corruption along with increasing people's income should be the focus of leaders in the coming years. A survey prior to the start of the congress showed social justice remained high on the "wish list" of the common man.
These issues also are generating much public outcry as tens of millions of people become Internet and online users despite tough official censorship.
The new Xi government already has ordered its first corruption investigation involving a top provincial Communist Party official. A Dec. 7 official media report said the investigation involved Li Chuncheng, 56, deputy secretary of the Sichuan Communist Party and a newly elected alternate member of the Central Committee. He has been accused of disciplinary violations, but details have not been provided.
In an early indication of the new team's priorities, Xi also has outlined what has since come to be known as the "eight rules" for winning people's trust and support. The rules call for avoiding extravagance and unnecessary bureau trips. The new party Politburo Central Committee under Xi said there should be "no welcome banner, no red carpet, no floral arrangement or grand receptions for officials' visits" and "fewer traffic controls arranged for the leaders' security ... to avoid unnecessary inconvenience to the public." The rules also said official meetings should be made short and to the point "with no empty and rigmarole talks" and warn that anyone violating party disciplines and state laws will be seriously dealt.
In foreign affairs, it is not quite clear how Xi and his new team plan to deal with issues such as President Barack Obama's new U.S. policy of force rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific, also called the pivot to Asia. The policy is being implemented at a time of China's growing military might and aggressive assertiveness of its territorial claims to much of the vital South China Sea. Separately, Japan-China tensions also are rising over their rival claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
During his Asia trip in November, President Obama made it clear his administration will move forward with the new policy, saying the Asia-Pacific will shape much of U.S. security and prosperity in this century and will be critical to creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said recently the new policy underscores the United States is and will remain a Pacific power, but noted it stresses cooperation and collaboration, and is not aimed at any nation or region.
The policy, however, has raised concerns in China and its official media has bitterly attacked it in the past.
During a rare meeting with invited foreign experts in Beijing in early December, Xi said: "China is following a path of peaceful development," and "China will never seek hegemony or expansionism." But on the same day, during a meeting with the People's Liberation Army's Second Artillery Force, Xi ordered the PLA to build a powerful and technological missile force. The official media quoted him as describing the artillery force as the core strength of China's strategic deterrence and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security.