As China’s parliament went through the motions of choosing the country’s new leaders, the counting was occasionally interrupted by snores from the visitor’s gallery of the Great Hall of the People.
The badge worn by the fatigued gentleman identified him as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s equivalent of a senate. Another delegate was asleep behind him. In front of me, a young Chinese reporter was playing a video game on his smartphone.
Despite the enormity of the moment – in theory the almost 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress were choosing those who will lead this staggeringly large and important country for at least the next five years – it wasn’t just the gallery that was struggling to stay focused.
As NPC delegates lined up to drop their red ballots in a red box erected on the red-carpeted stage, some paused so colleagues could take souvenir photographs of them at this staged moment in history. Others crept up to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping – the man everyone has known for years would succeed the retiring Hu Jintao as President – kneeling beside him to ask for autographs. A traditional Cantonese song, Rising Higher Step By Step provided the ambience.
The vote, when it was finished, produced the expected result: 2,952 votes for Mr. Xi, one vote against and three abstentions. The only mystery was whether four of the Communist Party’s handpicked delegates had staged a brave protest, or whether they had simply misunderstood what they were supposed to do with the ballot. Either way, Mr. Xi had won 99.86 per cent of the vote.
And thus the People’s Republic of China, possessor of the world’s largest army, second-largest economy, third-biggest space program and fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, chose its seventh president since 1949. There was no campaign, no public debate, no choice for the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion citizens.
The voting in the Great Hall of the People took just over two hours to complete. When it was over, Mr. Xi bowed to the delegates, shook Mr. Hu’s hand and said something privately to him. Then China’s new and old leaders led everyone out of the hall for a lunch break.
“My guess is some delegate is too old to read and accidentally made a mistake [by voting against Mr. Xi],” one resident of central Henan province wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s wildly popular Twitter-like social-networking site.
Others jokingly wrote about Mr. Xi’s election as though he were competing in a U.S.-style presidential race.
“Voter polls conducted in several central China swing provinces put support for Xi at more than 50 per cent. The candidate who wins central China is almost guaranteed to win the election, but votes in some swing provinces remain up for grabs,” one sarcastic netizen wrote as the voting went on.
Such comments mocking the leadership selection process were rapidly deleted from the Internet by China’s fast-working legions of censors.
Thursday’s ceremonial vote confirmed an ascension that has been arranged since 2007, when Mr. Xi was elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo and made vice-president under an agreement between Mr. Hu and his own predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
The 59-year-old Mr. Xi now controls all major organs of the Chinese state – the party, the People’s Liberation Army and the government – making him the country’s sixth paramount leader, following Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu.
The voting for vice-president was only slightly more dramatic, with Mr. Xi’s chosen candidate, Li Yuanchao, winning all but 80 votes, giving him 96 per cent support. (The dissenting 4 per cent must have read the newspaper reports that the 86-year-old Mr. Jiang wanted someone besides the reform-minded Mr. Li in the largely ceremonial vice-president’s post.)
Mr. Xi’s choice of the 62-year-old Mr. Li to be his vice-president will be interpreted by many as an endorsement of Mr. Li’s pro-business ideas. But unless Mr. Xi dies or resigns during his term in office, the vice-president’s post is largely ceremonial.
Mr. Li – who was surprisingly left off the powerful Standing Committee last fall when the new leadership of the Communist Party was announced – is considered too old under the party’s informal rules to succeed Mr. Xi when he is finished his two five-year terms in 2023, and thus will almost certainly serve only one five-year term before stepping aside so Mr. Xi’s eventual successor can have the job.
The NPC delegates returned to the Great Hall of the People on Friday to elect a premier and several vice-premiers. As expected, Li Keqiang, the No. 2 man in the Communist Party hierarchy, was confirmed as Wen Jiabao’s replacement as premier.
The only question was whether the lone voice of dissent would be corralled before then. As it turned out, Mr. Li received 2,940 votes out of 2,949 cast, with three votes against and six abstentions.