Xi’s election to presidency completes China’s leadership transition

March 14, 2013

With his formal elevation Thursday to China’s presidency, Xi Jinping completed a months-long, highly choreographed leadership transition and now begins what many have hoped would be a new era of reform.

So far, however, all signs seem to point to a much slower and modest approach to policy changes, if any are coming at all.

At this week’s rubber-stamp parliamentary meeting where Xi was elected, no major changes were announced on the economy, environment, rule of law, government corruption or society.

Heading into the National People’s Congress, government officials had raised the possibility of other reforms as well, such as changes to China’s labor camps, which are widely despised by the public.

But the only big change passed by this year’s congress was bureaucratic: a streamlining of government, which included merging two of the most heavily criticized departments — railway and family planning — with other ministries.

“Internally, they may believe they have found a way of maintaining governance without making these big changes,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator in Beijing.

Xi, 59, has been China’s top leader since November, when he took control of its highest military body as well as the ruling Communist Party — where the country’s real power resides. Thursday’s vote was a mere formality, with only one vote against and three abstentions out of nearly 3,000, but experts have scrutinized the parliamentary meeting over the past two weeks for clues of emerging power factions and what policy directions Xi may take.

Xi’s clearest moves since November have been geared toward consolidating his power. He has firmed up ties with the military, come out strong for protecting China’s sovereignty in territorial disputes and proposed a vague revitalization of the country, mentioning in speeches a still-undefined concept of the “China dream.”

In a bid to win public support, he has also launched a highly publicized campaign against corruption. But as skeptics point out, he has not enacted any long-term changes such as requiring public disclosure of officials’ assets.

In one relatively surprising move Thursday, the vice presidency was given to Li Yuanchao, an apparent reflection of a backroom power competition between Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin to maneuver their allies into key positions.

Li, an ally of Hu, was passed over in November for one of the seven seats on China’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, which instead became dominated by Jiang allies. Giving the vice president spot to Li could be seen as a high-ranking consolation prize, potentially positioning him for another attempt in five years, analysts said. But if the position remains as it is, with no real power or defined portfolio, his chances could be harmed.

As the congress draws to a close, Vice Premier Li Keqiang is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao in a similarly choreographed vote on Friday. Following the practice of past years, he is expected to hold a news conference with foreign journalists on Sunday — the only instance each year when top party leaders open themselves up to questions from outsiders.

Wang Juan contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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