By Zhengxu Wang.

The new batch of Party leaders is now officially the new cohort of state leaders. At the Lianghui sessions during the last two days, Xi Jinping and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee were “elected” into state offices.

As expected, Xi was elected the President, while Li Keqiang was elected Premier. Their colleagues were elected into various posts such as the Chair of the NPC Standing Committee (Zhang Dejiang), and the Chair or the Chinese People’s Political Consultation Conference (Yu Zhengsheng). Other leaders were “elected” to head the regime’s judicial and military arms. The Presidents of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, for example, were also “elected” by the Congress.

Such is the façade of the regime’s “people’s democracy”. That is, the Party’s monopoly of state power is wrapped in a democratic cloth, as the Party’s control of state offices was rubber stamped by the People’s Congress. Nevertheless, looking at the ballot results, we can still roughly gauge the warmth the ordinary Chinese people have for these new leaders. The ballots were cast by the 3000 or so delegates. Most of them voted according to the Party’s suggestions, i.e. they voted to support whichever candidate was put forward to them on the ballot.

Only one candidate is put forward for each post. Leaving little space for surprises. All the candidates, therefore, received more than 90% of the votes. Looking at it this way, the electoral figures hardly tell us anything. The electoral rules are so designed, however, that at least in theory, the delegates do have the opportunity to vote for an alternative or competing candidate. That is, for each post, any delegate can choose not to vote for the official candidate, but to vote for another as a write-in candidate.

If there were indeed strong campaigning efforts, a group of delegates could succeed in voting someone else in for a certain post. The official candidate would lose the election, a humiliation for both the candidate and the Party. Such incidents have happened in provincial People’s Congress sessions, showing that the delegates could sometimes pull their act together when they really feel unhappy.

Although the likelihood of such a drama taking place at the National People’s Congress is extremely small, the number of “reject” and abstinence votes an official candidate received can still tell a lot about how the delegates, and the public they represent, like or dislike a certain personnel choice the Party has made.

In the case of the President, when Hu Jintao was first elected 10 years ago (2003), he received 4 reject and 3 abstinence votes. By contrast, the figures for his predecessor Jiang Zemin were 35 and 25, respectively, 10 years before in 1993. That clearly showed that Hu was much more popular as a state leader than Jiang was. Even more dramatic, in 2003 for the election of the Chair of the State Central Military Commission, a few dozen delegates rejected Jiang, the official candidate, while voting for Hu as a write-in.

So how did Xi do this time around? He only received one reject and three abstinence votes, registering a level of popularity even higher than that of Hu. This vote, while officially concluded the power transfer from Hu to Xi, it also means that the honeymoon between the new leadership and the populace is now about to end.

People were happy that a new leadership was selected at the November Party Congress. At this Lianghui session they gave their support and consent through their delegates. In between, they have generally been hopeful that Xi (and his colleague Li) would bring changes and good policies. For his part, Xi has been able to sustain a pro-people, pro-change, and down-to-the-earth image in the state-controlled media, harnessing the honeymoon mood that people have for him.

Hereafter, the people will measure Xi’s performance by the real changes they feel on the ground. Goodwill and a supportive public mood will now be replaced by the expectation of effective action.  Having reached the height of his popularity, the real work for Xi Jinping now begins.

Zhengxu Wang is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

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