BEIJING—China‘s rubber-stamp parliament chose former top graft-buster Wang Qishan, a key ally of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as vice president on March 17, a widely expected move that nonetheless breaks with convention and underlines Xi’s dominant authority.
Xi was also re-elected state chairman by the rubber-stamp parliament, with no votes cast against him. The legislature is packed with party loyalists and there was no chance he would not win the vote.
Wang bowed twice and then walked over to Xi to shake his hand after the vote was announced inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Only one person voted against Wang out of the 2,970 votes cast.
Xi and Wang spoke only to pledge allegiance to the constitution, with Wang giving the podium an emphatic tap after he finished.
Known as “the firefighter” for his central role in tackling issues like corruption and domestic financial problems over the years, Wang also has experience dealing with the United States in his former role as a vice premier who led annual economic talks with Washington.
He was a major player in Xi’s battle against corruption, with dozens of senior officials—many belonging to an opposition faction at odds with the Xi leadership—jailed during his tenure as the top graft-fighter, including the fearsome domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, now serving life in jail.
Last Sunday, parliament voted to amend the constitution, which removed chairman and vice-chairman term limits, meaning Xi can stay in power indefinitely.
The party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily hailed Xi’s “re-election” in an editorial on its WeChat account, using language once more associated with Mao Zedong to say he was a “leader loved and respected by the people” and the “helmsman of the country.”
Wang’s appointment has the potential to reshape what has traditionally been a ceremonial role. China‘s relationship with the United States is likely to be a key part of his remit, according to diplomats and sources with ties to the leadership.
“The vice president [chair] position in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is not a very powerful one, but it depends who fills the job,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Cabestan said Wang would likely be considerably more influential than his immediate predecessor, Li Yuanchao, given his close relationship with Xi and greater international profile.
China has been trying to head off a trade war with the United States, sending envoys to Washington in recent weeks, including Xi’s top economic adviser, Liu He.
U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to impose tariffs on up to $60 billion of Chinese imports and will target the technology and telecommunications sectors, two people who had discussed the issue with the Trump administration said this week.
A Delegate From Hunan Province
Whether Xi could retain Wang in a senior role despite his reaching retirement age had been seen as a key measure of Xi’s power and the subject of much speculation in the lead-up to this month’s National People’s Congress (NPC).
In January, Wang, who turns 70 in July, was named an NPC delegate with the central province of Hunan despite having stepped down from the elite seven-man Politburo Standing Committee during a five-yearly leadership transition in October.
Despite holding no official senior party role, Wang has taken center stage at plenary NPC sessions, seated immediately next to the seven members of the Standing Committee, in a clear indication of his actual status.
At the opening session where Premier Li Keqiang presented the government’s work report, Wang cut a relaxed figure, staring straight ahead impassively while other delegates busily read and jotted down notes.
Protocol at major political events, including seating arrangements and the order in which leaders are shown in state news bulletins, are tightly choreographed to convey a political message.
Wang cast his ballot on Saturday, March 17 immediately after Han Zheng, the seventh-ranked and most junior Standing Committee member.
On Saturday, the NPC also formally approved a government restructuring plan that merges China‘s banking and insurance regulators, gives new powers to policymaking bodies such as the central bank and creates new ministries.