The Communist Party of China looks set to slow, or perhaps even reverse, the country's pace of change, as the conservative faction headed by former president Jiang Zemin appears to have won a struggle for power within the party over a clutch of reformers allied with outgoing leader Hu Jintao.
Thursday morning, Xi Jinping walked onto the red carpet in the ornate East Hall of the Great Hall of the People, signalling he had succeeded Mr. Hu as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, becoming the party's seventh leader since Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic in 1949.
The new Standing Committee, which has been cut from nine to seven for efficiency of decision making, filed in and took places on the red-carpeted stage that were marked with black numbers referring to their new place in the hierarchy of power.
"We shall do everything we can to live up to your trust and to fulfill our mission," Mr. Xi said, standing under a mural inscribed with a poem written by Chairman Mao. The party faces "severe challenges," Mr. Xi said, including corruption and alienation from the country's people.
The new Standing Committee, the apex of power in China's one-party political system, is stacked with those seen as owing their careers to Mr. Jiang, the man who rose to power after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and whose legacy is a mixture of economic reforms and political repression.
Though it's not yet certain what course the new Standing Committee will collectively chart, – it effectively runs the country as a board of directors – those who were promoted Thursday are seen as hailing from a wing of the party, populated by the "princeling" sons of the Communist old guard, that has proved more resistant to change.
A Standing Committee heavy with hardliners could mean a China that's less receptive to foreign investment, and more assertive in its dealings – including flammable territorial disputes – with its Asian neighbours. Calls at home and abroad for Beijing to allow more freedom of speech and political dissent seem likely to go unheeded.
While Mr. Xi will gradually accumulate more power – he is set to take over from Mr. Hu as president early next year, and eventually also as head of the military – China's leadership-by-consensus system means Mr. Xi, who is considered a princeling himself, will work within limits set by his near-peers on the Standing Committee. Mr. Xi is more powerful now than Mr. Hu was in 2002.
Little is known about Mr. Xi's beliefs. A careful politician, he has risen through the ranks in part by being inoffensive and sticking to bland statements of party policy. Until recently, he was best known to most Chinese as the husband of Peng Liyuan, a famous singer who has tipped surveys as the most popular entertainer in the country, a 49-year-old soprano who sometimes performs in an army officer's uniform. He and his wife have a daughter who attends Harvard.
But now Mr. Xi has the chance – if the Standing Committee will let him lead – to put his own stamp on China. "He will be in power for ten years. If he really intends to reform, he must accumulate his power in his first five years, unite his forces and foster his team. When this is done, he might have the power to start implementing his own policies in the latter five years," said Xiao Mo, a Beijing-based author and dissident.
Optimists about Mr. Xi draw their hope from the track record of his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was a famous comrade-in-arms of Mao's until he was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He rebounded after Mao's death to become a vice-premier who played a key role in the opening of the Chinese economy in the early 1980s. In his retirement, he reportedly spoke out against the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters occupying Tiananmen Square.
The 59-year-old Mr. Xi takes over a country that has seen two decades of staggering achievements. Once poor and technologically backward, China's economy is now the second largest in the world, and the country is a key player in everything from the euro-zone debt crisis to the space race. Its 1.3 billion people have never been richer.
Beijing is also increasingly viewed as the world's other superpower, a rival to Washington for influence not just in Asia, but also Africa and even Latin America. It provides diplomatic and financial aid to governments in Iran, Syria and North Korea, regimes that the United States views as destabilizing.
At home, Mr. Xi now stands atop a political system that remains startlingly anachronistic, as evidenced by the byzantine behind-the-scenes process that elevated Mr. Xi – a man most Chinese know almost nothing about – to the top job. How and why he was elevated is another unknown.
The lack of free expression, or a fair judicial system, contributed to a rising number of thus far isolated anti-government protests around the country.
He will also lead with the 86-year-old Mr. Jiang – who had to be helped by two bodyguards whenever he stood or walked during the week-long Communist congress in Beijing – looking over his shoulder and exerting influence over key decisions. Some expect that the outgoing general secretary, Mr. Hu, 69, may also try and linger by remaining as head of the Central Military Commission for up to two more years.
Another key figure for the next five years will be Zhang Dejiang, a 66-year-old hardliner with a degree in economics from Kim Il-sung University in North Korea. Seen as a fixer of the party's problems, he was sent to run the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing earlier this year after the city's previous party chief, Bo Xilai, was felled by criminal allegations. He is now the party's third-ranked leader, after Mr. Xi and premier-to-be Li Keqiang.
Other Jiang allies promoted to the Standing Committee include Yu Zhensheng, party chief in Shanghai, and Liu Yunshan, one of the party's top propagandists, and Zhang Gaoli, boss of the city of Tianjin. All are better known for their belief that the Communist Party is on the right course than for their efforts to address the country's mounting problems.
Mr. Hu – who saw a decade of successes on the economic and diplomatic fronts tainted by a string of scandals this year involving senior officials – could only get two of his own allies onto the Standing Committee. The 57-year-old Mr. Li, who will take over from Premier Wen Jiabao as head of the government next year (the cabinet is less powerful than the party Politburo) immediately assumes Mr. Wen's role as the party's most prominent liberal.
He'll be joined by Wang Qishan, a former Beijing mayor who most recently handled tricky U.S.-China economic negotiations. He's ranked sixth of seven on the new Standing Committee, although he will have wide powers as head of the anti-corruption Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Meanwhile, two reformers that Western investors had hoped to see promoted – Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and Liu Yuanchao, the well-regarded head of the party's Organization Department – missed the cut. Both are seen as protégés of Mr. Hu.
A key caveat to Mr. Jiang's apparent tour de force is the age of his allies who were promoted Thursday: all the new Standing Committee members – except Mr. Xi and Mr. Li – are 64 years or older, meaning all are slated to retire in 2017, clearing the field for Mr. Hu's younger allies to rise to the Standing Committee ahead of the next major power transfer in 2022, when Mr. Xi and Mr. Li are due to step aside.
Mr. Xi was initially expected to be something of an arbiter between two evenly matched factions. Now, he's a relative liberal on a Standing Committee that leans toward greater state control over the economy and politics.
"We know so little about what [Mr. Xi] is going to do," said Gordon Houlden, a former senior Canadian Foreign Affairs official who is now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
The signals from the week-long Communist Party congress were decidedly mixed. Delegates ended the meeting with a solemn singing of the socialist anthem, The Internationale. Then they filed out of the Great Hall of the People, to a waiting fleet of chauffeured Audis.