WHEN Xi Jinping, China's new leader, appeared in public for the first time after being appointed, the last major world power ruled by a Communist party gained a new human face.
In contrast to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who always seemed to be reciting an officially approved text, the stocky, 59-year-old Mr Xi seemed to speak with genuine personal feeling of what needs to be done in this nation of 1.3 billion people.
He talked of people's desire for a better life, for better jobs, education and health care – and for less pollution. He flashed his chubby smile, unlike the ever-dour Hu. His slightly bear-like stance contrasted with the ramrod backs of the Communist Party elite standing with him on the stage in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
There was even an impromptu element in an unexplained hour's delay in starting this final event of the week-long Communist Party Congress, which has installed the country's new leadership.
Some observers with long memories of the old Soviet Union compared it to the early appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev as he sought to move the USSR towards a more relaxed and responsible system. But any comparison with Mr Gorbachev would be an anathema to Mr Xi and his colleagues – 'Gorbachev' is a dirty name in China as the man who relaxed the party's grip and brought disaster down upon it.
Therein lies the basic paradox as China moves into the Xi Jinping era.
On the one hand, its leaders acknowledge the major challenges facing them but, on the other, they are extremely reluctant to alter the power structure or the reliance on economic growth that have produced many of these problems.
They fear political reform would bring the whole edifice tumbling down, Gorbachev style. They stress party unity above all.
The bureaucracy and powerful vested interests, especially in the huge state sector of the economy, oppose reform that could affect their privileged positions. Popular protests, some 150,000 a year, have been met by an expansion of spending on state security, now larger than the military budget. Media are tightly controlled and censors patrol the internet.
While individual liberties have greatly increased, anybody who tries to organise political opposition is likely to end up in jail. Mr Xi may smile for the cameras, but this remains an iron-fisted regime which has control in all forms at its heart.
Yet, outside the serried ranks of delegates in the Great Hall of the People last week, everyday life went on in a way that takes as little account as possible of the ruling autocracy. Rather than Communism or Confucianism, the "ism" that rules in today's China is materialism.
They see life in down-to-earth terms of material betterment, epitomised by the young woman who said on a television dating show that she would "rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle".
Economic growth has changed society radically. Social media runs rings round the censors. Corruption and poorly enforced safety standards, notably for food, have bred widespread cynicism and distrust.
When a magazine reporter asked primary school children what they wanted to be when they grew up, most said they dreamed of becoming rich business people, pop idols or sports stars. But one six-year-old replied that she wanted to be an official. "What kind of official?" the journalist asked. "A corrupt official, because they have all the nice things," came the reply.
The disjunction between the opaque, hermetically sealed one-party system and this rapidly evolving society is the main challenge for the regime. For all his apparent normality on Thursday, Mr Xi's steady rise through the ranks of the provincial bureaucracy to power at the centre as Communist Party General Secretary is symptomatic of how things actually work in China.
This is not the meritocracy that China enthusiasts proclaim as being superior to messy western democracy. You only move up the ladder in China if you belong to the party – and that covers only 6pc of the population. How you rise certainly depends on your performance, but also on your contacts.
Friends describe Mr Xi, the son of a revolutionary general, as "supremely pragmatic and a realist" and also as "exceptionally ambitious".
What was the key to his rise to the top? He is a man with whom the various interest groups on the Chinese totem pole feel comfortable, the consensus choice in a regime that has evolved from the wild adventurism of the Mao era into a management system that is running a country of 1.3 billion people, rather than a big company.
We know something of his personal life. He likes American war films because the good guys win. He exercises by swimming. His first marriage broke down and his second wife, Peng Liyuan, is a highly popular folk singer, who is a major-general in the army entertainment corps but who retreated from the limelight as her husband rose.
She says she picked him for his "inner qualities", and describes him as frugal, hard-working and down-to-earth.
Having followed a conventional route to the top within the party bureaucracy, Mr Xi is unlikely to go off message. Though he is now the top man in an autocratic system, the dictatorship which rules China is that of the Communist Party and its state, not that of an individual – and the party state is a complex animal.
The jigsaw of powers encompasses the political machine, reaching down from the leadership compound beside the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing to every village in the land.
All companies of any size have a communist cell which has to approve important decisions.
The bosses of big state enterprises, who have on their desks a "red telephone" connecting them to party officials, are as powerful as ministers.
The party runs its own discipline commission, which can pick up people at will and hold them for six months without charge in a secret location.
Mr Xi has a tricky task ahead of him at home, while abroad he has to work out how to deal with Beijing's scratchy relationship with Washington under the second Obama administration and faces an array of disputes with other East Asian states, including Japan. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Jonathan Fenby is author of 'Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today'