BEIJING: Hu Jintao was chosen as expected yesterday to replace Jiang Zemin as the president of a fast-changing China, the last major step in a sweeping transition to a younger generation of leaders that has been years in the making.
Jiang, 76, stayed on as leader of the government's military commission – and is expected to wield significant influence from behind the scenes. Hu, 60, who was vice-president, claimed the top post four months after ascending to the acme of China's ruling Communist Party, the most powerful position in the land.
Balloting in China's national legislature was televised intermittently and appeared more focused on spectacle than democracy.
Delegates voted by an overwhelming margin of 2,937 to four to elevate Hu – a move largely considered to be a rubber stamp for the party. Each delegate placed a ballot in a computerised box for counting; the identities of the four who opposed Hu and the three who abstained were not released.
When the results were announced, Hu and Jiang shook hands as the outgoing leader grinned. The two exchanged a quiet comment as delegates applauded heartily.
It was the pinnacle of the first orderly transfer of power in communist China's 54-year history.
Though the presidency has few official powers in China, Hu's elevation to it – and the prestige it brings on the world stage – reinforces his status as the country's new paramount leader. But no wholesale policy shifts appeared to be on the agenda, and the emphasis was on continuity.
“It doesn't matter who holds the top leadership post,'' said Zhang Yanling, a delegate from the northern province of Shanxi. “They will all wholeheartedly represent the people and work for their interest.''
China's new leaders take charge of an increasingly capitalist – and restive – society of 1.3 billion people that is struggling to cope with the strains of development pushed along by its entry into the free-trading World Trade Organisation.
Despite its social and economic transformations, China's communist political system has resisted change – a closed, secretive system that harshly punishes dissent and any move regarded as threats to its monopoly on power.
Zeng Qinghong, Jiang's former closest aide and chief political strategist, was named vice president. He was appointed with Hu in November to the party's ruling Standing Committee.
Jiang was reappointed to his post as chairman of the government commission that carries out the orders of a parallel party body controlling China's 2.5-million-member military. Jiang was renamed chairman of the party body in November, and there has been no indication when he would give up that post.
That state body, whose membership is identical to the party's commission, exists primarily to carry out party orders.
“We have great faith in Chairman Jiang. In the past 14 years, our nation has grown much more powerful,'' said Zhang Yanling, a legislative delegate from Shanxi. Jiang took over the party in 1989.
In contrast to other major nations, the 2.5-million-member People's Liberation Army is officially controlled not by the government but by the party – a legacy of its origins as the armed force that brought the communists to power in 1949.
One top-level position remains unresolved. Today, a new premier will be selected to replace Zhu Rongji. Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, another top party official, is considered the odds-on candidate to run government operations and oversee the economy.
Hu was picked in the early 1990s by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping as the top contender to succeed Jiang. Hu spent the past decade handling increasingly demanding tasks meant to test him and prepare him for leadership. Most recently, he held top party management posts handling promotions and other sensitive business.
His first big test came after Nato bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Hu was the government's public face, making his first major speech on Chinese television during anti-US and British rioting that followed, despite Washington's insistence that it was a mistake.
In 2001, Hu handled a tense standoff with the United States after a US military surveillance plane made a forced landing on Hainan island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
Despite his new powers, Hu is surrounded by a Politburo Standing Committee that Jiang loaded with his own allies before stepping down.
Many expressed hope that the new leaders would breathe new life into government – and help alleviate economic apprehensions.
“They all have the same goal of setting up an 'all-around well-off society for China','' said Xia Lianhui, a delegate from Fujian, echoing officially stated party strategy. “Only by solving the three-pronged problem of the countryside, farmers and agriculture can it be possible to create such a well-off society.''
North Korea's beleaguered leader reached out to China's new president yesterday, offering congratulations and expressing hope that a friendship “forged in blood'' would continue. On the island of Taiwan, the elevation of Hu was cautiously welcomed.
Kim Jong Il, in the middle of a game of brinkmanship with the United States over North Korea's nuclear programme, was among the first leaders to send congratulations. His message came within a half-hour of the National People's Congress vote that elevated Hu to the presidency yesterday morning.
Kim invoked the calamitous 1950-53 Korean War, in which China and North Korea lined up to fight the United States.
“I would like to express the belief that the bilateral friendship that was forged in blood would grow stronger and develop thanks to the common efforts exerted by both sides and wholeheartedly wish you great success,'' Kim said in a statement carried by his government's Korean Central News Agency.
In Taiwan, the island's top policymaker for China relations cautiously greeted the news and urged the new generation of leaders to improve relations.
However, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, said she didn't expect Beijing's new leaders to push for an immediate breakthrough with Taiwan. The island split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949. – AP
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