Xi Jinping began an unprecedented third term as China’s president on Friday, cementing the Chinese leader’s unchallenged grip on power amid growing tensions with the US and deepening economic challenges at home.
In a solemn ceremony at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong was sworn in as head of state for another five years.
While the formal appointment was mostly ceremonial — Xi secured the more powerful posts as head of China’s Communist party and military leadership at the party congress in October — his reinstatement as head of state comes at a sensitive moment for China’s relations with the world.
Under pressure from Washington’s export controls on semiconductors, allegations of spying and scrutiny of Beijing’s close relationship with Moscow, Xi this week explicitly named the US as the leader of a western effort to contain China. While he often engages in nationalist rhetoric, the Chinese leader rarely directly criticises the US.
“I think the biggest change is really the collapse of China’s relations with the US in the past 10 years,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of numerous books on China, of Xi’s first decade in power. Pei added that with the Chinese economy struggling, reigniting a sense of optimism would be one of the president’s biggest challenges going forward.
“How can he rebalance, how can he make people more optimistic while saying there is this big ugly adversary out there trying to choke us off?” Pei said.
Xi’s appointment was passed with 2,952 votes in favour and zero against at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament whose members are appointed by the party.
Friday’s announcement of a third term completes a process Xi started in 2018 by abolishing two-term limits on the presidency, effectively allowing him to rule for life if he chooses.
After singing China’s national anthem, an honour guard escorted a copy of China’s constitution into the Great Hall of the People and Xi took the oath of office, promising “to work hard to build a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious and beautiful modern socialist country”.
China’s economy is expected to rebound this year after growth fell to one of the lowest levels in decades in 2022 because of Xi’s draconian zero-Covid policies, but economists are concerned that medium-term growth will be more difficult to achieve. The property sector and local governments continue to struggle with debt, and efforts to rebalance the economy away from investment and towards consumption have yet to bear fruit.
The congress also appointed vice-premier and party veteran Han Zheng as vice-president, a mostly ceremonial role that is meant to act as a check on the president’s power.
While Han is a political survivor from the days of the late president Jiang Zemin, he is expected to have little influence in the current government, said Wu Qiang, an independent political commentator in Beijing.
At the party congress in October, Xi was able to stack the Communist party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, with close allies.
“With all Xi’s people in the standing committee and top positions, Han Zheng will live under Xi’s shadow and play a very limited role,” said Wu.
The parliament also confirmed Zhao Leji, a close ally of Xi, as its new chair. He was formerly head of the party’s tough internal investigation agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
“It shows Xi is satisfied with Zhao’s work in the CCDI,” said Wu.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Nian Liu in Beijing