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FILE PHOTO: In this photo taken Sept. 1, 2012 and released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping addresses the opening ceremony of the autumn semester of the Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.Li Tao/The Associated Press

For a man who had just become leader of the world's most populous country, facing a yawning wealth gap, growing friction with China's neighbours and damaging scandals within his own Communist Party, Xi Jinping looked remarkably relaxed as he met the world's media Thursday in the Great Hall of the People. He even smiled a few times.

That in itself represented a change, in style if not yet substance. After a decade of dour stiffness from the outgoing Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi's grins – and an apology for arriving late to the news conference – were welcomed by many Chinese as a sign that he might just be a different kind of Communist boss.

He'll also be a more powerful leader than he was initially expected to be. Mr. Hu shocked many on Thursday by stepping aside as head of the Central Military Commission – he had been widely expected to remain for another two years – giving Mr. Xi immediate command of the People's Liberation Army. That allows Mr. Xi a freer hand at the start of his tenure than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Mr. Xi may also be aided by having to deal with a smaller Standing Committee. The all-powerful group, which functions as the Communist Party's board of directors, was reduced in size to seven members, in apparent hope of streamlining decision-making after Mr. Hu presided over a nine-member body.

"Xi Jinping starts day one as commander-in-chief. This will help him consolidate his position," said Willy Lam, an expert on Communist Party politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It's not clear what Mr. Xi will do with his moment. The pudgy 59-year-old with the shiny black hair, who saw his family purged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s and who spent seven years working as a labourer and living in a cave, will be the first Communist Party leader with a personal understanding of the uglier parts of the movement's history. His father, a former vice-premier, is reputed to have spoken out within the party against the use of force to crush pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.

That breeds optimism that Mr. Xi will allow greater political openness than his predecessors, perhaps by permitting people to speak openly about the crimes of Mao Zedong.

Mr. Xi used his initial speech to display a more populist touch than his recent predecessors. Instead of dryly listing off socialist theories, Mr. Xi talked about what the Chinese people wanted: "better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions and a better environment." He sounded – a little – like a politician campaigning for office rather than what he is: a career apparatchik elevated to power via a byzantine back-room process.

"Worth the wait! [He has] a very human touch!" one Beijing-based microblogger wrote online after Mr. Xi's speech.

Mr. Xi, who is also Vice-President of the government, will complete his ascension in March when he will formally take over as president from Mr. Hu. While important internationally, the post is widely viewed as less powerful inside China than the leadership of the 82-million-member Communist Party and three-million-strong People's Liberation Army.

Mr. Xi is more Westernized than previous Communist Party bosses. He has fondly recalled the family in Iowa he stayed with on a 1985 trip to the United States. (There's a photo of him smiling goofily with the family at what appears to be a birthday party.) His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a famous singer, set to become the most prominent first lady China has had since Mao's wife was purged and jailed for her role in the Cultural Revolution. The couple's only daughter studies under a pseudonym at Harvard University.

But others see Mr. Xi as a member of the party's privileged, "princeling" class, as children of China's famous revolutionaries are known. They're viewed as a generation that believes they were born to rule and who have no intention of letting go of their accumulated power and wealth. An investigation earlier this year by the Bloomberg news agency – which traced upward of $750-million (U.S.) in assets to Mr. Xi's extended family – supports that thesis. The website has been blocked inside China since it published the exposé in June.

Mr. Xi's first remarks as general secretary suggested he's aware of how the Communist elite are viewed in the country they rule, following a year of corruption scandals.

"Problems among our party members and cadres of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucratism must be addressed with great efforts," he said, speaking under the chandeliers of the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People.

Other Communist leaders have made similar remarks in the past. What made Mr. Xi's speech different was the personable tone. The first words out of his mouth were a humble "sorry to have kept you waiting" – words that stunned assembled Chinese and foreign reporters more accustomed to being ignored by Communist officials.

One of the first measures announced following the power transfer was a cut in the price of fuel, starting from Friday. Another apparent change was at least a temporary loosening of some of the controls on the Twitter-style Sina Weibo microblogging website. One previously banned term you can now search for: "Xi Jinping."

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