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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China's Vice President Xi Jinping will visit the United States this week, providing the first glimpse of the next generation of Chinese leaders. A once-in-a-decade transition of power begins this fall, and it's rife with unpredictability as an unfolding political scandal grips the country.

In the first of a series on China's next leaders, NPR's Louisa Lim looks at the hopes and fears surrounding the transition of power.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Despite China's growing prosperity and status, at home the voices of criticism are ever louder. Mass protests - even small-scale revolts against the Communist Party - are becoming more common. China's guiding formula for two decades has been economic development without political liberalization. But liberal political analyst Hu Xingdou suggests that's left it looking like the Brezhnev era Soviet Union.

HU XINGDOU: (Through translator) Reform has gone backwards, strengthening the privileged. For private businesses, the situation is getting worse. The rule of law is deteriorating. A decade of stability has allowed development, but it's hard to say if this is short-term preceding a collapse or a real step towards modernization.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LIM: China's current leadership are mainly technocrats, engineers like President Hu Jintao, heard here singing a Russian love song. Any study overseas was likely to have been in the Soviet Union. The next generation is very different. Many studied social sciences at university during the '80s, the most liberal era.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN")

EDWARD BURNS: (As Private Richard Reiben) I'm done with this mission.

LIM: Xi Jinping, for one, is known for his love of Hollywood movies, especially "Saving Private Ryan." The new leaders have much wider exposure to the West, and Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution, says this could point to a new direction.

CHENG LI: Because of their educational background in law and in political science and et cetera, they may be less scared about political experimentation or rule of law. Now, that's certainly a hope, but also there's some concern that this generation may be more nationalistic, more arrogant, and it maybe sometimes too bold or risk-takers. We do not know.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LIM: Among some quarters, there is hope that could mean political reform. Some even believe the new generation could tackle the biggest political taboo of all: the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Chen Ziming was named as the black hand behind the student movement, and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

CHEN ZIMING: (Through translator) There's a possibility the next generation may overturn the verdict on the events of 1989. It's a good bargain. They lose nothing, but they win points. I don't think it will happen immediately, but they may consider it when they've consolidated their position. With the current leadership, there was no chance.

LIM: Others disagree, saying the incoming leaders had no track record as political reformers. And when it comes to political reform, China's leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Here's Cheng Li again.

LI: The dilemma is that the leaders, if they want to open the system, you deal with some very serious challenges. But if we do not want to open the system, they face the possibility of revolution.

LIM: Another key question is how much internal unity there really is, given that the Communist Party is splintering into unofficial groupings. Xi Jinping is in the princeling faction, the children of the communist elite. But the man tipped to be his premier, Li Keqiang, is from the more populist faction, who hail from humbler backgrounds and may have risen up through the Communist Youth League. According to Cheng Li, one party, two coalitions is the new reality.

LI: Populists versus elitists, or Communist Youth League versus princelings. You do see these kind of factional infighting become increasingly transparent, and the Chinese society, Chinese intellectual community and Chinese leadership becoming increasingly diversified or pluralistic. That's a welcome development, but it also poses serious challenges.

LIM: The recent political drama could signal the outbreak of a new factional war. A gang-busting police chief linked to a prominent princeling is under investigation, this after he spent one day last week holed up inside the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, some say seeking asylum. This is shaping up to be the political scandal of the year, if not the decade.

It won't affect Xi's trip to the U.S., but the political impact will reverberate through the next leadership lineup. The court intrigues once played out behind closed doors have been plunged into the public sphere, complicating an already tricky transition.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

INSKEEP: Now, tomorrow, as China's vice president prepares to visit the White House, Louisa will check in with friends and relatives of the man expected to be China's next president.

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