BEIJING — China’s new leader Xi Jinping capped his rise Thursday by adding the largely ceremonial title of president, though he will need cautious maneuvering to consolidate his power and build support from a public that is increasingly clamoring for change.
The elevation of Xi to the presidency by the rubberstamp national legislature gave him the last of the three titles held by his predecessor, Hu Jintao. The move was expected after Xi was named head of the Communist Party and chairman of its military, positions of true power, last November in a once-a-decade handover to a new group of leaders that has been years in the making.
Despite being formally in charge, it will be within the party’s top ranks — in which powerful people are often divided by patronage, ideology or financial interests — that Xi will find the biggest challenges.
This will be doubly so if he follows through on his pledge to tackle the endemic graft he has pinpointed as detrimental to the party’s survival, said Willy Lam, a China politics watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Graft is deeply ingrained in the party’s patronage-based culture and those at the top — many of whose families have benefited from their political connections — are believed to be most resistant to anti-corruption measures that diminish their prerogatives.
“He has to walk a fine line,” Lam said. “If he were really serious about going after senior cadres, he might establish his authority within the rank and file, however, that would also jeopardize his relationship with the power blocs and with the holders of vested interests.”
Xi’s accession marks only the second orderly transfer of power in more than six decades of communist rule. He was the only candidate for president in Thursday’s vote in the country’s figurehead parliament, the National People’s Congress.
Delegates gathered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People voted 2,952-to-1 for Xi in balloting that amounts to a political ritual echoing the decisions of the party leadership. Three delegates abstained.
Named vice president in a vote of 2,839-80 was Li Yuanchao, a liberal-minded reformer and a close ally for decades of Hu. The move breaks with the practice of recent years, because Li is not in the party’s seven-member ruling inner sanctum, but is seen as a concession to Hu’s lingering influence and as a reward to a capable if not wholly popular official.
Xi takes charge at a time when the public is looking for leadership that can address sputtering economic growth and mounting anger over widespread graft, high-handed officialdom and increasing unfairness. A growth-at-all-costs model that defined the outgoing administration’s era has befouled the country’s air, waterways and soil, adding another serious threat to social stability.
Underlying public unhappiness with the party is a deficit in trust.
“At present, the party and the government have very little public credibility,” said Zhang Ming, a China politics expert at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. “The way to regain credibility is to at least show some results, but at this point that can’t be seen and I predict there won’t be any real results later.”
Ahead of the votes on the government’s top slots, legislators approved a government restructuring plan only four days after it was introduced.
The streamlining, among other things, abolishes the Railways Ministry, combines two agencies that regulate newspapers and broadcasters into a super media regulator and merges the commission that oversees the much-disliked rules that limit many families to one child into the Health Ministry.
It also joins four agencies that police fisheries and other maritime resources into one bureau to better assert China’s claims over disputed waters, potentially sharpening conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In a reflection of China’s growing international engagement, the role of president has evolved from being purely ceremonial to, since the 1990s, a position the party hopes lends legitimacy on the world stage to the government it runs the country with.
“As China opens up and becomes more engaged in the international community, it’s just impractical, it’s not convenient, for a party head to meet a foreign head of state,” said Warren Sun, an expert on Communist Party history at Monash University in Australia. “It’s better to be in equal positions, representing the state and not just represent the party.”
Xi was already effectively the country’s No. 1 leader in mid-November after ascending to the helm of the ruling Communist Party, which holds ultimate power in China. And he has deftly handled his first months in power.
The son of a revolutionary veteran, Xi cuts an authoritative figure with a confidence and congeniality that was lacking in his predecessor, the aloof and stiff Hu. He quickly moved to court the military after taking over from Hu as head of the party’s Central Military Commission, making high-profile visits to naval, air force and infantry bases and meeting with nuclear missile commanders.
Xi has also sought to court other constituencies: making a trip to the south to show he’s interested in economic reforms, repeatedly stating his staunch belief in party power to appeal to hardliners, visiting the poor to burnish his common-man credentials and espousing the “Chinese Dream” to tap into middle class aspirations.
But for Xi to consolidate his power within the party he will come up against various interest groups such as the sons and daughters of communist China’s founding fathers who want to keep benefiting from their connections, or those with links to banks and state industries who don’t want their privileged positions threatened.
Ideologically, there are those who believe China needs an even stronger, more authoritarian government that promotes more egalitarian economic and social policies and those who want a transition to more democratic government.