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


China’s Xi Jinping casts his vote for the election for the new president of China during the 12th National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2013. China's parliament named Xi as the country's new president on March 14, formalizing his leadership of the world's most populous nation four months after he took charge of the ruling Communist Party. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
March 14, 2013

Xi Jinping was named China’s new president Thursday, completing a months-long highly choreographed transition of power.

The announcement came after a largely ceremonial vote of parliamentary delegates at the National People’s Congress.

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 cast — but experts have scrutinized the ongoing parliamentary meeting the past two weeks for clues of emerging power factions and what policy directions Xi may take.

Many have pinned hopes on Xi for much-needed reforms on the economy, environment, rule of law, government control and society. Heading into the congress, officials openly discussed other reforms as well, such as possible changes to China’s labor camps, despised by the public.

But such ambitions have since faded, with signals from officials that it will take a more modest approach. The only major change passed by this year’s people’s congress was bureaucratic: streamlining the government and abolishing two of its most heavily criticized departments, railway and family planning, by merging them 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’s clearest moves since assuming power in November have all 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 revitalizing 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 cases of corruption, but as skeptics point out, he has not enacted any long-term changes such as requiring public disclosure of officials’ assets.

One relatively surprising move on Thursday, the vice presidency was given to Li Yuanchao. The position has traditionally been held by one of the seven standing committee members in the party, so by itself it has no real power or defined portfolio. The move is a reflection of a backroom power competition between Xi’s predecessor 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 that could position him for another attempt in five years, analysts said.

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

Wang Juan contributed to this story.

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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