BEIJING, March 10 (Reuters) – Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term as China’s president on Friday in a parliamentary session in which he tightened his grip on the world’s second-largest economy as it emerges from a COVID crisis and diplomatic challenges mount.
Nearly 3,000 members of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), voted unanimously in the Great Hall of the People for Xi, 69, in an election in which there was no no other candidate.
Xi has led China down a more authoritarian path since taking control a decade ago, and he is extending his term for another five years amid increasingly divisive relations with the United States. United and its allies on Taiwan, Beijing’s support for Russia, trade and human rights.
Domestically, China is facing a difficult recovery after three years of Xi’s zero COVID policy, fragile consumer and business confidence and weak demand for Chinese exports.
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The economy grew just 3% last year, among its worst performance in decades. During the parliamentary session, the government set a modest growth target for this year of around 5%.
“During his third term, Xi will have to focus on economic recovery,” said Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank.
“But if he continues what he has been doing – tighter party and state control over the private sector and confrontation with the West, his prospects for success will not be encouraging.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Xi on his third term. The pair sealed a “limitless” partnership between China and Russia in February last year, days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Xi set the stage for another term when he scrapped presidential term limits in 2018 and became China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic.
The presidency is largely ceremonial, and Xi’s main position of power was extended last October when he was reconfirmed for another five years as general secretary of the Communist Party’s central committee.
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During Friday’s vote, Xi spoke with incumbent Prime Minister Li Qiang, who is set to be confirmed as China’s second-highest post on Saturday, a role that puts the former Shanghai party leader and Xi’s ally in charge of the economy.
Other Xi-approved officials are due to be elected or appointed to government posts over the weekend, including deputy prime ministers, a central bank governor and numerous other ministers and department heads.
The annual parliamentary session, the first since China dropped three years of COVID restrictions, will end on Monday, when Xi delivers a speech which will be followed by a media question-and-answer session by Li.
During Friday’s session, Xi and dozens of other senior leaders on stage did not wear masks, but everyone else in the auditorium did.
China ended its zero COVID policy in December after highly unusual nationwide protests against restrictions that were stifling daily life and the economy.
The virus, which emerged in China in late 2019, then spread rapidly to infect most of its 1.4 billion people, but authorities have not released a full tally of related deaths.
Parliament also elected Zhao Leji, 66, speaker of parliament and Han Zheng, 68, vice president on Friday. Both men belonged to Xi’s former team of party leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee.
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian Editing by Lincoln Feast, Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel
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