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China’s new leader prepares to take the reins

China’s President Hu Jintao (left), with former President Jiang Zemin, handed over power to VP Xi Jinping.

Feng Li/Getty Images

China’s President Hu Jintao (left), with former President Jiang Zemin, handed over power to VP Xi Jinping.

BEIJING — President Hu Jintao gave his final speech as head of China’s Communist Party on Wednesday, paving the way for a new generation of leaders that will be unveiled Thursday morning.

The new leadership lineup — a once-a-decade occurrence — will end months of internal rivalry, secrecy, and speculation and will determine the country’s future at a time of economic worries, increased regional tensions, and widespread clamor for reform.

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Vice President Xi Jinping, 59 — the son of a famed Communist revolutionary general — is expected to take over the party’s top position, general secretary, from Hu, who remains president until March. But it is unknown what direction Xi and the other new leaders will take.

While waiting in the wings for the past five years, Xi has carefully avoided giving any hint of his priorities, keeping strictly neutral to avoid endangering his status as heir among the party’s competing factions.

Any changes to the system envisioned by Xi probably will be constrained by several older party leaders considered more conservative in outlook that many believe will be named Thursday to the Politburo Standing Committee, the body that effectively runs the country and is expected to shrink from nine to seven seats.

The transition is not likely to dramatically change China’s relations with the United States. Xi was long known as the heir apparent, and the Obama administration began cultivating ties with him, including sending Vice President Joe Biden on a lengthy trip here in 2011, where Xi played host in Beijing and in Sichuan Province in the Southwest. Xi made a reciprocal trip to the United States earlier this year with Biden as his host, and they attended a Los Angeles Lakers game.

But in coming months as Xi consolidates his power, military tensions probably will remain high as the United States continues its policy of rebalancing toward Asia and shoring up its alliances with countries surrounding China. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a weeklong Asia trip that will take him to Thailand, Cambodia, and Australia, where the United States has been expanding military cooperation and establishing a new base in the Northern coastal city of Darwin.

Later this month, President Obama will travel to Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, the final stop symbolically important as the United States and China are seen as rivals for influence in that strategically located Southeast Asian country.

This year’s leadership transition is China’s first in a decade, and only its second without chaos or bloodshed. Many current and former officials also have become more concerned, saying the 91-year-old Communist Party is in dire need of reform.

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