In a move that came as a surprise to no one, the nearly 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress elected 59-year-old Xi Jinping as president of China, replacing 70-year-old Hu Jintao, on March 14 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi is expected to serve two five-year-terms, following precedent. The vote: one against, three abstentions, and 2,952 in favor.
The congress, which meets once a year in its full session, has a role that sounds far more meaningful on paper than it is in real life. Among other things, China’s 1982 State Constitution (there is also a party constitution) gives the NPC “the power to amend the constitution; supervise its enforcement; enact and amend laws; ratify and abrogate treaties; approve the state budget and plans for national economic and social development; elect and impeach top officials of the state and judiciary,” write Susan V. Lawrence and Michael F. Martin in Understanding China’s Political System (pdf), released by the Congressional Research Service on Jan. 31.
In reality, it is a still largely ceremonial organization, and its main purpose is to do the party’s bidding. “One major reason for the NPC’s weakness is the Communist Party’s insistence that it serve as little more than a rubber stamp for party decisions. While the constitution gives the NPC the right to “elect” such top state officials as the President, Vice President, and Chairman of the State Central Military Commission, for example, in practice, the Party decides who will fill those positions,” write Lawrence and Martin.
Xi’s election to the paramount position of power in China (he now holds the three poles of authority, including head of the military and party, along with state) is part of a carefully scripted process that began at least five years ago. That was when Xi, son of a reformist revolutionary, rose to membership in the elite, now seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
Xi is seen as compromise candidate who early on won the backing of powerful party elders, including former leader Jiang Zemin, who’s now 86, and his retired deputy, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, now 73. Xi’s princeling background, connections to the military (he once served as an aid to a top defense official, plus years of loyal service to the party all helped garner him support.
Xi was earlier named party secretary and chairman of the party’s central military commission, at the much more important once-every-five-year party congress last November. As well as the presidency, Xi was given a parallel but less powerful role as head of the state’s central military commission on March 14. “The party secretary is the bones; this is the covering of flesh,” Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing and now a professor at the University of Sydney, told Bloomberg News.
What comes next is unclear. While Xi seems to be demonstrating he wants to go down in the history books as a leader known for affecting important changes, how he plans to get there is uncertain. He has made repeated references to a “China Dream” and national “rejuvenation” and has indicated he is a strong proponent of a more assertive role for China. “He is showing his determination to be a strong leader of the military,” said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last month.
“He wants to plant himself firmly in [the] mainstream of the communist party narrative of now, having restored China’s territorial integrity, it is time for China to regain its rightful position of greatness in the world,” says Paal, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
At the same time, Xi appears to support a faster pace for economic reforms, including possibly lessening the power of the state in the market, perhaps in part because there may be no alternative. His first trip outside Beijing after assuming the leadership of China’s 82 million-member Communist Party, was to Shenzhen, in a clear nod to the historic 1992 trip by Deng Xiaoping, then aimed at reigniting flagging economic reforms.
And in a perhaps hopeful reading, some say Xi’s strongly nationalist tone could be in part aimed at providing political cover while he pursues difficult reforms, including a crackdown on official corruption, that will upset powerful vested interests in the party.
“It also becomes a very defensible way to institute economic reforms that are very controversial—putting it under rejuvenation, with its strong nationalist banner,” says Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of How China’s Leaders Think, who has met Xi a half-dozen times. “It inoculates him against internal criticism that he is too liberal or too soft on America, because that’s what Jiang Zemin and [former premier] Zhu Rongji were said to be, when they pursued economic reforms.”