BEIJING – China's new leader Xi Jinping capped his rise to the top Thursday by adding the largely ceremonial title of president, though he will need more time and 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. Delegates to the country's figurehead parliament, the National People's Congress, 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."
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