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China's Xi Jinping, as expected, gets 5 more years as state president

Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his oath after he is unanimously elected as President during a session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, March 10, 2023.
Mark Schiefelbein
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his oath after he is unanimously elected as President during a session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, March 10, 2023.

BEIJING - China's rubber-stamp parliament handed leader Xi Jinping a third term as president on Friday, an outcome that has been widely expected since he orchestrated the abolishment of term limits with a constitutional amendment five years ago.

The presidency in China is largely ceremonial; most of Xi's power flows from his position as leader of the ruling Communist Party and commander-in-chief of the military. But his re-appointment completes a comprehensive power grab that has been gathering pace and highlights Xi's dominance over the Chinese political system.

Xi was re-elected unanimously by the nearly 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress, which is holding its annual meeting in Beijing. After the announcement, Xi bowed to the delegates as they applauded.

Taking an oath of office with his right hand held up in a fist, Xi said he would be loyal to the constitution and the "motherland", and "work hard to build a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful modern socialist country."

At a Communist Party congress in October, Xi clinched a norm-bending third term as party chief and surrounded himself with loyalists and allies — a victory that surprised many observers, who had expected other factions in the party to be influential enough to retain some representation in the party's top ranks.

That result was the culmination of a steady and at times ruthless consolidation of power that started after Hu Jintao handed the reins of the party to Xi in 2012.

With the new mandates, analysts say Xi's reign is set to be rivalled only by those of Chairman Mao Zedong, who ruled for nearly three decades, and Deng Xiaoping, who guided China's economic opening as paramount leader for around 20 years until his death in 1997.

Xi's time in power so far, though, has been turbulent.

He has tightened the party's grip on society, limited freedom of expression, squashed Hong Kong's democracy movement, and waged a campaign of assimilation against minorities in the Xinjiang region, which the U.N.'s top human rights official said might amount to crimes against humanity.

His rolling campaign against corruption has garnered broad support at the grassroots level, while rattling the country's massive bureaucracy. Xi took credit in 2020 for eliminating abject poverty in China — a long-standing goal of the party. He has also implemented a sweeping modernization of the military.

Still, challenges have proliferated. China's economic growth has slumped, from 7.8% in 2013 to just 3% last year under the weight of crippling COVID controls favored by Xi. And friction with the West has soared during his tenure, with many blaming his unapologetic, "Wolf Warrior" approach to foreign affairs.

"[Xi's] consolidation of power is more extensive than anyone predicted," said Tony Saich, an expert in Chinese politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

But, he says, it raises serious questions.

"Will anyone stand up to him if there are policy errors? A problem for all authoritarian leaders. Most of his acolytes are bureaucrats appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than policy expertise. Will they have the necessary skill set to deal with the future complex challenges?" Saich said.

Analyst say it's possible that Xi will stay in power beyond his new five-year terms, having anointed no obvious successor.

On Friday, Xi was also unanimously elected to another term as chairman of the state Central Military Commission (CMC). He already heads the more powerful party CMC. And two of his lieutenants — Han Zheng and Zhao Leji — were awarded the roles of vice president and head of parliament.

In the coming days, other Xi loyalists are expected to be assigned to top government jobs, further solidifying his grip on the levers of power.

The most consequential appointment is likely to be that of Li Qiang, who is widely expected to be named Premier on Saturday. Li was elevated to the party's no.2 spot in the fall, despite his controversial handling of a months-long lockdown in Shanghai, where he most recently was the party boss.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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