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Hu's cautious reforms take shape

  • Story Highlights
  • Undisputed head of China's Communist Party center stage at congress
  • President pledges to make China prosperous and strong
  • Two men tipped to succeed Hu by 2012
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By Jaime FlorCruz
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- The undisputed leader of the Communist Party, Hu Jintao took the center stage at the party congress, proposing to make China prosperous and strong.

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Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks at the 17th Communist Party Congress.

"Let us work hard in building a moderately prosperous society and write a new chapter of happy life for the people," he said in his keynote speech.

The 2,200-plus delegates, representing 73 million party members, are expected to endorse Hu Jintao for another five years when the five-yearly congress ends this weekend.

Hu, 64, is a technocrat better known for a photographic memory than charisma. Some analysts look at him as a reformer, albeit a cautious one. "He is a man of detail, very methodical but some say he is colorless and stiff," says Wenran Jiang, associate professor at University of Alberta. "He remains enigmatic but now his vision is beginning to show."

He envisions a prosperous but harmonious society, and expounded on that in his 64-page, two and a half hour keynote speech.

"We will quadruple per capita GDP of the year 2000 by 2020," he pledged. He also vowed to curb corruption. Delegates applauded when he intoned: "Resolutely punishing and effectively preventing corruption bears on the popular support for the party and on its very survival."

Hu proposed to resolve the Taiwan issue. Talking directly to the leaders in Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a mere renegade province, Hu said: "On the basis of the one-China principle, let us discuss a formal end to the state of hostility between the two sides, reach a peace agreement, construct a framework for peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and thus usher in a new phase of peaceful development." Analysts say Hu's fresh overtures signal that the Chinese president is now coming out of the shadows of his predecessors.

Hu has kept the rapid economic growth pioneered by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. Under his aegis, China has twice sent astronauts into space, and now Beijing is preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Initially underestimated, Hu has weathered several crises. In 2003, he ended the official cover up of the SARS epidemic that started and spread in China and overseas. But during his five year reign, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider, official corruption remains rampant and China faces severe environmental problems. Social protest is rising. He has tightened restrictions on the media and the Internet.

When the week-long party congress closes this weekend, the delegates will also endorse the promotion of younger leaders to be chosen among a pool of technocrats and regional administrators.

Two men are tipped as front-runners to succeed Hu Jintao in 2012.

One is Xi Jinping (pronounced Shee Jean Ping), 54, party chief of Shanghai, China's financial and business center. An experienced provincial administrator, Xi was moved to Shanghai eight months ago. His mission: to clean up the corruption scandal involving his predecessor, Chen Liangyu, who was just expelled from the Communist Party and is now awaiting trial.

Analysts say Xi will get promoted in part because his impeccable political pedigree. His late father was a revolutionary veteran, which makes him a "princeling". David Zweig, professor at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong explains: "He's a princeling, which means that he has support within an important segment of the party, the leaders within the party, who are the children of former higher ranking officials."

And there is also Li Keqiang (pronounced Lee Keh Cheeyang), 52, regarded as Hu Jintao's personal favorite. Li has been Hu's under-study for decades. David Zweig opines: "Li's most important character or sticker quality is, he worked with Hu Jintao back in 1982 in the Communist Youth League organization, so he has a long history, we're talking 25 years now, working with Hu Jintao. Everytime Hu Jintao got promoted, Li Keqiang was able to move up."

The bespectacled Li, who studied law and economics at Peking University, is now the party chief of Liaoning province, the industrial rust belt in the northeast China.

In a meeting with Liaoning delegates, he answered a few questions from the press--albeit gingerly. "My main mission at present is to work, but also to learn while working," he said modestly.

Asked if he is a rising political star, he quickly ended the question and answer session. "These front-runners cannot afford to make one mistake at this point," explains a Chinese official who prefers not to be identified. "The less they say publicly, the safer their possible promotion."

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Barring last minute hiccups, both politicians are expected to be promoted into the elite Standing Committee of the Poliburo--the top policy-making body. If so, that will mean there will be no single anointed successor to Hu Jintao but two contending successors in waiting.

Now, start practicing how to say "Xi Jinping" and "Li Keqiang". E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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