By Yew Lun Tian
BEIJING (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term as China’s president on Friday during 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 they increase.
Nearly 3,000 members of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), voted unanimously in the Great Hall of the People for the 69-year-old Xi in an election in which there were no other candidates.
Xi has led China on a more authoritarian path since assuming control a decade ago, and extends his tenure for another five years amid increasingly contradictory relations with the United States and its allies over Taiwan, Beijing’s support for Russia , trade and human rights.
Domestically, China faces a difficult recovery after three years of Xi’s zero-COVID policy, fragile consumer and business confidence, and weak demand for Chinese exports.
The economy grew just 3% last year, among the worst performers in decades. During the parliamentary session the government set a modest growth target for this year of just around 5%.
“In his third term, Xi will need to focus on economic recovery,” said Willy Lam, a senior member of the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank.
“But if it continues with what it has been doing – tighter party and state control over the private sector and confrontation with the West, its 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 two inked a “limitless” partnership between China and Russia in February last year, just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Xi set the stage for another term when he lifted 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 reappointed for another five years as general secretary of the Communist Party’s central committee.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden remained focused on managing strategic competition with China, White House spokesman John Kirby said. “Mr Xi’s third term certainly comes as no surprise to anyone here. It was all highly anticipated,” Kirby said.
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During Friday’s vote, Xi chatted with pending premier Li Qiang, who is expected to be confirmed to China’s second-highest post on Saturday, a role that puts the former Shanghai party chief and Xi ally in command of the economy.
More Xi-approved officials are expected to be elected or appointed to government posts this weekend, including vice premiers, a central bank governor and several other ministers and department heads.
The annual parliamentary session, the first since China abandoned three years of COVID restrictions, will conclude on Monday when Xi delivers a speech that will be followed by a media question-and-answer session from Li.
During Friday’s session, Xi and dozens of other top leaders on stage were not wearing masks, but everyone else in the auditorium did.
China ended its zero-COVID policy in December after highly unusual nationwide protests against the brakes choking on 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.
On Friday, the parliament also elected Zhao Leji, 66, as parliament speaker and Han Zheng, 68, as vice president. Both men were from Xi’s previous team of party leaders at the Politburo Standing Committee.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian, additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel and Raissa Kasolowsky)