Xi flexes muscles, chooses reformist as vice president

Reuters, BEIJING

Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - Page 1

A reformist member of China’s decisionmaking politburo, Li Yuanchao (李源潮), is set to become vice president this week instead of a more senior and conservative official best known for keeping the media in check, sources said.

Li’s appointment would be a sign that new Communist Party general secretary and Chinese president-elect Xi Jinping (李源潮)’s clout is growing, a source with ties to the leadership said.

Xi fended off a bid by influential former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to install propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan (劉雲山) in the job, the source said.

Jiang was a major power behind the scenes in the administration of outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).

The post of vice president is largely symbolic, but the job would raise Li’s profile, give him a role in foreign affairs and further bolster Xi, who took the top jobs in the party and military at a party congress in November last year.

The promotion of Li may also signal a willingness on the part of Xi to pursue limited reforms that Li is known to have advocated in his previous posts, such as making the selection of party officials more inclusive.

Two other sources, who declined to be identified because it is sensitive to discuss elite politics with foreign media, also confirmed that Xi had decided to make Li his vice president rather than Liu.

The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, is set to vote in Xi and Li as president and vice president respectively tomorrow. Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) is to succeed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), overseeing the economy and day-to-day running of the Cabinet.

“Li Yuanchao will be vice president, not Liu Yunshan,” the source with leadership ties said. “It was Xi’s decision, and a sign he is strong and able to say ‘no’ to Jiang.”

In November last year, Liu was promoted to the seven-man politburo standing committee with responsibility for propaganda and ideology. He has also taken over two of Xi’s previous positions: president of the Central Party School, which grooms up-and-coming cadres, and the top seat on the secretariat of the party’s elite 205-member Central Committee.

Liu served as propaganda minister between 2002 and last year, keeping a tight leash on domestic media and China’s Internet, which has more than 500 million users.

His rival, Li Yuanchao, had been widely considered a top contender for a spot on the standing committee in November, but party elders led by Jiang used a last-minute straw poll to block him from joining the body, sources said.

“This time it’s kind of a holding position,” said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Li Yuanchao has been regarded as progressive for advocating incremental reforms in how the party promotes officials and consults the populace on policies, but how much influence he has as vice president will be, to a large degree, decided by Xi.

“If Xi wants a proactive, tightly-allied kind of vice president, then the vice president will have power. If he wants a purely symbolic figure, who is there to do absolutely nothing, then that’s what the vice president will do,” Brown said.