Xi in Beijing. (AFP)
Hong Kong, March 14: China’s new Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, completed his formal transition to power today, assuming the presidency during a parliamentary meeting which has sent signals that his government will try to be more responsive to an impatient public while defending the party’s top-down control.
The National People’s Congress anointed Xi as President four months after he was appointed as Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, giving him all three offices — party, army and state — through which he is likely to wield power for the next decade.
There was never any doubt that compliant delegates to the annual party-run parliament would overwhelmingly endorse Xi for President. They also voted in his ally Li Yuanchao as vice-president. Among the 2,956 delegates who cast valid ballots in the grandiose Great Hall of the People, one contrary soul voted against Xi, while three abstained.
Now Xi faces rival expectations of how he will apply the power in his hands — expectations that he has kindled. Since succeeding Hu Jintao as party leader in November, he has used meetings, speeches and visits to a frenetic coastal city and a dirt-poor village to signal he wants some economic liberalisation, more room for citizens to criticise the government, and a crackdown on the official corruption that has increasingly infuriated Chinese citizens.
Yet Xi has also rejected any turn to western-inspired political liberalisation and demanded utter loyalty from officials and the military.
“I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism. He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing who is a prominent commentator on politics.
“I think in the end it will be difficult for them to avoid issues of political reform, because otherwise it will be impossible to eradicate corruption,” Li said.
“Relying on personal authority and party indoctrination and traditions won’t solve the problems they face.”
Meeting parliament delegates this week and last, Xi repeated vows to counter slowing economy growth by encouraging consumer spending and pulling down barriers to farmers migrating to towns and cities. He told People’s Liberation Army delegates that a strong, absolutely loyal military is essential to his “China dream” of patriotic revival. He also has shown a lighter public touch than his predecessor Hu, a stiffly disciplined politician. After an uproar this week over thousands of pig carcasses floating down a river near Shanghai, state media highlighted Xi’s earlier comments on water pollution.
“The standard that Internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim,” Xi told officials from near pollution-plagued Lake Tai in eastern China, according to a state media report.
Xi, 59, is the son of a Communist Party official who served under Mao Zedong and became a supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to curtail party controls and nurture markets. Vice-President Li is also the “princeling” son of a senior cadre.
Many party insiders thought that Li was destined for a place on the elite, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, but he was left out of the line-up announced in November. However, Li’s new post will keep him close to Xi, and he could still climb into the Standing Committee at a party congress in 2017.
Before the parliament session ends on Sunday, it will also appoint Li Keqiang as Prime Minister tomorrow, succeeding Wen Jiabao, and install new deputy Prime Ministers, ministers and other senior officials.
“They are all the sons of the party,” said Yao Jianfu, a retired party official and researcher in Beijing. “For them, there’s no conflict between defending their own power and developing a capitalist economy in China,” he said, adding Xi “will have lean more to the Left in politics than he can lean to Right in economic policy, otherwise he won’t be able to stabilise his place on the emperor’s throne.”
Outwardly, at least, Xi has accumulated the levers of power more smoothly than his recent predecessors. Hu waited for almost two years between becoming party leader in late 2002 and taking the Central Military Commission chairmanship from Jiang Zemin, who remained a constraint on Hu. Jiang was long overshadowed by Deng Xiaoping, the aged patriarch who installed him and at one time threatened to remove him.
But analysts and former officials said Xi and his comrades face other, no less forbidding obstacles to their vows of change: the array of powerful political families, state-owned conglomerates and ordinary urban residents who fear that change could threaten their interests.
“The talk of reform is genuine. There is absolutely an understanding by the new leadership that they cannot carry on in the way that they have,” said Jennifer Richmond, a China analyst.