The new face of Beijing's ongoing pragmatism
The nation has a new leadership, many of whose members are not well known to the outside world. Instead of the familiar figure of 76-year-old Jiang Zemin, China's face to the world from next year will be that of the mild-mannered 59-year-old, Hu Jintao.
However, Mr Hu is by no means inexperienced. Unlike Mr Jiang, who was parachuted into the leadership 13 years ago in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square disturbances, Mr Hu has been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee for 10 years, and hence has been intimately involved in all major decisions involving domestic as well as foreign affairs for the past decade. His eight colleagues on the Standing Committee have served in a variety of posts, both in the capital and in the provinces.
In the early days after Mr Jiang gained power, he bided his time, keeping his views to himself. He said nothing that was not in accordance with clear party policy and accorded great respect to Deng Xiaoping and other party elders. In fact, even in 1993, when President Jiang journeyed to Seattle for an Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation leadership forum, he dutifully read from a prepared text, while other leaders spoke off the cuff.
Mr Hu is also likely to keep his head down in the early days, sticking closely to policies laid down by Mr Jiang and deferring to him. However, there is little reason to doubt that, in time, Mr Hu and his colleagues will acquire the confidence that will allow them to come into their own.
Pragmatism is likely to continue to be the hallmark of Chinese policy in general.
Domestically, the party's top priority will continue to be economic development, with the goal of quadrupling the country's gross domestic product over the next 20 years. In foreign affairs, China will continue to practise an 'independent foreign policy of peace'.
In China's eyes, the most important bilateral relationship is that with the United States, and Mr Jiang is leaving that relationship in perhaps the best state it has ever been since normalisation 30 years ago.
One possible drawback is that Mr Hu lacks Mr Jiang's linguistic talents. While Mr Jiang is able to give speeches in English and recite the Gettysburg Address, Mr Hu can do little more than say 'hello' and 'thank you' in English. In fact, the new generation of leaders by and large lacks the international exposure of the ones they are replacing. Hopefully, this is something that they will move quickly to remedy.
The disappearance from the scene not only of Mr Jiang but of Vice-Premier Qian Qichen as well does leave a vacuum on the foreign-affairs front. Mr Qian, like Mr Jiang, has already relinquished his party post and is expected to step down from his state post as well next March.
But there are other highly experienced diplomats still in place, including Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, who was re-elected to the Central Committee. Other Central Committee members who are likely to play an active role in foreign affairs are Deputy Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Liu Huaqiu, director of the party's foreign affairs office, and Dai Bingguo, head of the party's international department.
In terms of Hong Kong's relations with the central government, the Special Administrative Region is likely to miss the familiar faces of both Mr Jiang and Mr Qian, who were both intimately involved in SAR affairs.
But even within the new leadership, there is considerable experience in Hong Kong affairs. Mr Hu himself came here in 1999 to celebrate the second anniversary of the establishment of the SAR. And another member of the Standing Committee, Li Changchun, the Guangdong party secretary, knows Hong Kong well.
Other key officials, at somewhat lower levels, remain in place. They include Gao Siren, the head of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, as well as Liao Hui, head of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Both men were elected to the Central Committee.
Within the military, too, there are men familiar with Hong Kong. Liu Zhenwu, the former commander of the People's Liberation Army garrison in the SAR, was also elected to the Central Committee.
So, whether it be domestic affairs, foreign relations or Hong Kong, the emphasis of the new leadership is likely to be on continuity. In the absence of unexpected developments, there is unlikely to be any major change in policy, at least in the first couple of years.