BEIJING — China's next leader is tall and self-assured, with an expansive smile and a deep, resonant voice.
This is as much as we now know for certain about Xi Jinping after his first speech to reporters and broadcast audiences Thursday morning as the new chairman of the Communist Party of China. Given his apparent charm and the fact that most have never heard him speak at length before, it's not as trivial as it may sound.
Xi sprinkled his speech with intriguing language about forging iron and a famous mountain, skipped references to Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought, and took no questions from the hundreds of reporters allowed into the massive Great Hall of the People, where the Congress was held. His six fellow leaders were silent, looking far less comfortable than he as they were announced as the new Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.
While Xi's physical bearing is inarguably more affable that that of the man he'll replace, President Hu Jintao (a man who makes a statue looks lively), Xi's greatest challenge will be in bridging the chasm China's leaders have created between themselves and the people -- not just in China, but elsewhere in the world.
There are few people who have seen as many power transitions in China as 91-year-old Sidney Rittenberg, who first came to China shortly after the 1945 7th Party Congress and was back during this, the 18th. Rittenberg was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party,(he left the party in 1980). When he went to work with the Chinese communists in 1946 as a journalist and translator, he found that the party's greatest strength lay in people's connection to it and its leaders.
"You bet it was different. It was very, very different," Rittenberg, who now works as a consultant helping American companies in China, said in an interview Thursday. "You had a real flesh-and-blood relationship between the guys up at the top and ordinary people."
Rittenberg recalls working closely for six months with one man who seemed to understand that strength particularly well. The man was Xi Zhongxun, one of the original revolutionaries who served as a vice premier. Because of those months traveling and working with the elder Xi, Rittenberg believes his son, Xi Jinping, China's next president, may be something of an outlier in the new leadership lineup, and the strongest potential chance for reform.
"The thing that makes me think that is I knew his father so well," he said. "His father was a wonderful man, probably the most democratic-minded man in the whole leadership, therefore he was always in trouble." (In later years, the elder Xi may not have been so democratic minded, as there are conflicting accounts over his stance on the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.)
"He was very close to ordinary people," Rittenberg said of the elder Xi. "He was a very folksy kind of person, very direct. He would tell me what was going on, straight in the shoulder, because we were friends. I just hope some of that rubbed off on the son."
There is little doubt the party's top leadership is removed from the people it governs. In recent years, the party has become, for countless citizens, linked with corruption, wealth and power, far from its origins and of little relevance to their daily lives. Ordinary people in Beijing this week repeatedly told me that the historic 18th Party Congress and once-in-a-decade leadership transition had nothing to do with them.
In an October report, the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, a U.S. government agency that monitors that country's human rights situation, described "a deepening disconnect between the growing demands of the Chinese people and the Chinese government's ability and desire to meet such demands."
"In a year marked by a major internal political scandal and leadership transition, Chinese officials appeared more concerned with ‘maintaining stability' and preserving the status quo than with addressing the grassroots calls for reform taking place all over China," the commission said.
Even beyond China, Rittenberg noted, the party has lost its touch with people. He said that when Premier Zhou Enlai, second-in-command to Mao, was leading China's international relations, he, and later, Deng Xiaoping, China's leader in the 80s and 90s, always made a point of speaking to the people of other countries, not just their governments.
In the past 15 years, party leaders have withdrawn, growing further distant from the masses, even as China for the first time has made massive outbound investments in other countries. The country's reputation has suffered and conflicts are simmering with its neighbors over islands and territorial waters.
There's little doubt that China's leaders know this.
But can Xi and his team -- led by six other men without such outward personality or apparent inclination for reform -- truly reconnect with a Chinese citizenry from which his predecessors have so effectively distanced themselves? And with a world that increasingly sees China as a threat?
Xi, with his outward charisma and family lore, may be the man for the job.
Xi's affability has already gotten results from one constituency: Weibots. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that China's microbloggers are lapping up Xi's more human persona.
"Talking like a human is an important change," The Journal quoted a tech executive as writing.
Undoubtedly, Xi's demeanor could be a shift. But he'll need more than charm to bring the party and the central government back to where it's relevant to the people.
"He's going to have big mountains to climb," said Rittenberg.
I asked Rittenberg if he ever imagined, back in the revolutionary days, if China would become the country it is now. Never, he said.
"I thought it was going to be a nice, reasonable, democratic pluralistic economy, which is what Mao had outlined, and that also, the party at that time was squeaky clean," he said. "This is a totally different party. This is not the party that carried out the revolution. It doesn't behave the same way. It doesn't talk the same way, it doesn't act the same way."