China set to unveil leaders with Xi Jinping at the helm

Bob Saiget

China will unveil its new leaders on Thursday, with Vice President Xi Jinping expected to march on stage at the head of a line-up that will steer the world's number two economy for the next decade.

Xi, who will succeed President Hu Jintao as head of the ruling Communist Party, assumes power at an uncertain time with urgent calls for action on corruption and an overhaul of China's economic model as growth stutters.

His long-expected ascension as head of the ruling Communist party is expected to take place before midday (0400 GMT) with the unveiling of a new Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's top decision-making body.

According to tradition, the committee is to be briefly paraded before the media inside Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People, the scene of all China's headline political events.

Police were out in force around the Stalinist edifice ahead of the sensitive transition and silence hung across the capital's vast Tiananmen Square, as about 500 Chinese and foreign journalists were led in for the ceremony.

China-watchers will be trained on how the committee members emerge onto the stage, in a pecking order agreed after years of factional bargaining -- a process which intensified in the months leading up to the five-yearly reshuffle.

Xi is headed to consolidate his position at the apex of national politics by being named China's president in the rubber-stamp legislature next March, for a tenure expected to last through two five-year terms.

The Politburo Standing Committee, currently with nine members but likely to be slimmed to seven, is also widely expected to include Vice Premier Li Keqiang, which would set him on the path to be be appointed premier next March.

The elite group will be tasked with addressing a rare deceleration of economic growth that threatens the party's key claim to legitimacy -- continually improving the livelihoods of the country's 1.3 billion people.

China also bubbles with localised unrest often sparked by public rage at corruption, government abuses, and the myriad manifestations of anger among the millions left out of the country's economic boom.

The communists have a monopoly on political power in China and state appointments are decided within the party.

The process began with behind-the-scenes horse-trading and political deals. It was essentially finalised on Wednesday when the party ended a week-long congress by announcing a new Central Committee of 205 people.

On Thursday, the Central Committee was scheduled to approve higher leadership bodies including the elite Politburo Standing Committee.

Observers believe two main factions are jockeying for power, one centred largely on proteges of former president Jiang Zemin and another linked to allies of Hu.

Xi is considered a consensus figure who leans toward Jiang, while Li has long been seen as a Hu protege.

Analysts say that despite rivalries between the two camps which are largely divided on patronage lines, they broadly agree China must realign its economy away from a dependence on exports, while maintaining a firm hand on dissent.

Beijing has ramped up security in Beijing and on the nation's popular social media sites to prevent any criticism during the gathering.

The run-up to this year's congress was unsettled by events surrounding Bo Xilai, a political star seen as a candidate for a top post until a scandal in which his wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman.

The sensational affair torpedoed Bo's political career -- he will face trial for charges of corruption and abuse of power -- and added to the intrigue in the run-up to the transition.