The election was only ever going to have one outcome. As expected, 59-year-old Xi Jinping was chosen as president of China on March 14 at the National People’s Congress, cementing his position as paramount leader, and giving him control of the three poles of power: party, military, and now state.
The joke going around Beijing goes like this: “The Americans say, ‘We vote in the morning and know who our president is by the afternoon.’ The Chinese say, ‘Those imbeciles! We vote in the morning and last year already knew who our president was going to be.’”
Humor aside, the vote tally—2,952 in favor, three abstaining, and one lonely ballot against—has trigger heated speculation, perhaps to the party leadership’s chagrin: With tremendous pressure on delegates to choose the candidate anointed by top party members, who bothers to abstain, and more importantly, has the chutzpah to vote No?
The reality is that no one will likely ever know. As in the past, the voting was done on paper ballots, each sealed in a red envelope, then dropped in a ballot box. It does not appear that it would be easy for senior party members to figure out who voted against Xi and why, even if they were inclined to try. (Some Beijing political watchers even wondered whether Xi himself was responsible for the contra vote; others said he likely abstained.)
“I can’t think of a meaningful explanation of what these ‘no’ votes and abstentions mean,” says Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University. “They could reflect an animus against Xi or a dissatisfaction with the process itself, or any of a heap of other motives.”
Certainly, Xi’s official approval rating is nothing to sneer at, even when compared with the high bar set by totalitarian dictators. As Eric Fish, an editor in Beijing at the Economic Observer, said on Twitter: “Xi Jinping’s 99.86% win tops Bashar al-Assad’s 97.62% margin in 2007, but just shy of Kim Jong Il’s 99.98% in 2009.”
It is also worth noting that within the Chinese system, abstentions and votes against are hardly new. When outgoing leader Hu Jintao took over the presidency one decade ago, there were four votes against him, along with three abstentions; at 99.76 percent, his level of support was considered impressively high, points out Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “It raises the question, who is the black sheep who voted against Xi Jinping,” says Cabestan. “But it can’t compare to the votes that took place 10 years ago.”
At that same national people’s congress in 2003, retired party elder, 73-year-old Zeng Qinghong, had a stunning 190 abstentions and 177 votes against him in his election for vice president, giving him an approval rating of less than 88 percent—his very close relationship with then-outgoing President Jiang Zemin, now 86, had damaged his standing, says Cabestan.
Jiang himself, widely viewed as the most powerful retired leader in China today, won only 92.53 percent of the vote for his continued chairmanship of the Central Military Commission; 98 were against, and 122 abstained, with many disapproving of his decision to hang on to control of the military even as he gave up the presidency and party secretary role.
Xi also outdid his deputies: Today’s vote awarding 57-year-old Li Keqiang the premiership, was 2,940 to 3, with six abstentions. Zhou Qiang who became head of the Supreme People’s Court, did even worse, with 2,908 voting for, 26 against, and 23 abstentions.
Also interesting will be to see how many delegates vote in support of the government’s work report, as well as the ministry of finance’s budget report—both are expected to occur on March 17. Those votes may be something of a referendum on outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao’s performance, over the 10 years they were in power.
At one point, of course, China’s top leaders demanded unanimity in politics. That was shown to be true in the 1949 election giving Mao Zedong the title of chairman; of 546 who voted, the one dissenter who voted nay, a respected philosopher Zhang Dongsun, was persecuted for most of the rest of his life, writes activist journalist Dai Qing.
“Under Maoist rule, which was a totalitarian system, they wanted absolute control and a unanimous vote,” says Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology in Sidney, Australia. “But now they do not command and don’t require that kind of absolute loyalty anymore,” says Feng, adding that a simple majority is enough. “If there are some negative votes, then that is some level of democracy they can show to the world.”