Xi Jinping Era Begins in China as Secretive Leadership Lineup Unveiled

Uncharacteristically relaxed introduction for new Chinese leadership.

ByABC News
November 15, 2012, 8:25 AM

BEIJING, Nov. 15, 2012— -- The Xi Jinping era began in China today with a smile and an apology.

Xi and his six fellow Chinese Politburo Standing Committee members were supposed to meet the media and the world at 11 a.m. Beijing time but did not walk out onto the dais inside the Great Hall of the People until minutes before noon. The all-powerful Standing Committee is China's top decision-making body.

"Sorry to have kept you all waiting," Xi casually quipped to the gathering of both Chinese and foreign media before launching into his nationally televised speech. "It's a great pleasure to meet with friends from the press."

Casual is not a term commonly associated with the upper echelons of Chinese leadership. But there was Xi, in his first speech as the Chinese leader, cutting at once a commanding yet relaxed presence in front of the world's cameras.

It was in sharp contrast with the formality of his serious and dour immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who remains a cipher to most even after 10 years in office.

That doesn't mean a lot is known about Xi. Indeed, many Chinese citizens know little more than his name. Before today they would probably more readily recognized his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous folk singer in China, than him.

But what is clear is that as of today, he is now the most powerful man in China.

Xi, 59, was elected today by the Chinese Communist Party elite as its new party leader and also named as the commander-in-chief of the Chinese military. He, however, will not be named president until March during a session of China's rubber-stamp congress.

This is only the second time in modern Chinese history that there has been a relatively peaceful and orderly transition of power. The first was 10 years ago when Hu took over from Jiang Zemin.

Breaking with tradition, Hu relinquished his military position today to Xi as well. In the past, previous leaders have held on to their commander-in-chief role for years after they leave office. Hu, despite becoming party boss in 2002, wasn't able to consolidate power until 2004 when Jiang finally stepped down from his military post.

Xi is a "princeling," a term reserved for a generation born into Communist Party royalty. His father, Xi Zhongxun, fought alongside Mao Zedong and later in life helped to push for market reforms in China.

Throughout his career, Xi Jinping has been a careful politician, taking care not to offend and toeing the Party line. Little is known about his political beliefs.

Early in his career, Xi made a journey to visit the America heartland to learn about hog farming on the banks of the Mississippi in Muscatine, Iowa. There he stayed at the home of Sarah Lande.

Lande, now considered an "old friend" of Xi's, spoke with ABC News when she was in Beijing early November.

"I remember a warm smile, a competent person who was eager to be there for his country," Lande told ABC News. "He was eager to feed his people, eager to see America. He said he read books about the Mississippi River and Mark Twain."

Understanding Chinese leaders are akin to reading tea leaves. If little is known about Xi, his fellow Standing Committee members are every bit as unknown. Together they will govern China by consensus as near peers.

The appointments of Xi Jinping and second-in-line Li Keqiang have been a foregone conclusion since they were both named onto the Standing Committee back in 2007. They have been leaders-in-waiting for the past five years.