| China’s new President Hu Jintao (right) with former President Jiang Zemin during the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Saturday. (Reuters)
Beijing, March 15 (Reuters): China’s parliament chose Communist Party chief Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang Zemin as state President today, putting the formal seal of approval on a historic transition to a younger generation of leaders.
Jiang, who served a decade as President, was re-elected chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military post, ensuring his continued influence in top decisions in the world’s most populous country.
But, in a rare display of defiance at the largely rubber-stamp National People’s Congress, 7.5 percent of lawmakers voted against him or abstained.
As the nearly 3,000 delegates applauded, Hu took several deep bows and then shared a long handshake and warm smiles with Jiang, shoulder-to-shoulder in the centre of the stage at Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People.
Jiang’s chief protege, Zeng Qinghong, 63, a rocket scientist turned party apparatchik, was elected vice-president, although 12.5 per cent of deputies voted against him or abstained.
Foreign diplomats said the nay votes and abstentions — a rare rebuke from parliament which essentially approves decisions already made by the Communist Party — showed “substantial opposition” to Jiang clinging to power.
“‘No’ votes are the only kind of indicator of a lack of confidence in this system where it’s determined in advance,” said one. But there was virtually no opposition among legislators to Hu, the 60-year-old head of the younger generation, becoming President. Hu suffered just four no votes and three abstentions.
On the streets of Beijing, there was little doubt how the election would turn out.
“Oh, it’s Hu Jintao, who else would it be'” said hairdresser Guo Weihua, 32, as he watched the election on a television in a Beijing beauty parlour. “But of course Jiang isn’t really going anywhere. He is still keeping some of his powers.”
Jiang, 76, handed the party’s top post to Hu in November in China’s first orderly transition since the Communists took power in 1949, but packed the all-powerful, nine-member Politburo Standing Committee with allies and proteges.
For five decades, heirs to power came to a sticky end. One died in prison, another was killed in a mysterious plane crash and a third wound up under house arrest.
Parliament chose another Jiang ally, Wu Bangguo, as its new chairman, with 2,918 votes for, 20 against and 12 abstentions. He replaces Li Peng.
Jiang is expected to have the final say in military and foreign affairs, even though Hu takes over as head of state.
The outgoing President has been handling the Iraq and North Korean crises even as parliament met for its two-week annual session, and still commands the world’s largest standing army.
For Li Zhizhong, a delegate from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the division of powers between them was clear.
“Hu will manage the affairs of state while Jiang will look after national security. This isn’t a contradiction at all,” Li said.
“Jiang developed good relations with the US and other countries over the last 13 years,” he added. Jiang catapulted to the pinnacle of power in China in 1989 after the army crushed student-led democracy demonstrations centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He retired as party chief in November and now steps down as President after two five-year terms.
Vice-foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, front runner to take over from Tang Jiaxuan as foreign minister, said there would be no change to foreign policy.
“We will maintain a foreign policy that is effective, that is welcomed by the people of China and the people of the world and is mutually beneficially and helpful, and promotes peace,” Li said.
Other top leadership posts will be decided in the final days of the parliament session, which winds up on Tuesday. Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, 60, is set to take over 74-year-old Premier Zhu Rongji’s post tomorrow and will be in charge of the economy.
Polishing their credentials as men of the people, Hu and Wen used state media to champion the downtrodden in the run-up to the annual parliament session. They will need all the goodwill they can muster as they try to keep the economy moving fast enough to create jobs for the millions of workers being laid off by state firms.