BEIJING (AFP) - Xi Jinping was handed a third term as Chinese president on Friday, capping a rise that has seen him become the country's most powerful leader in generations.
His appointment by China's rubber-stamp parliament comes after Xi locked in another five years as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October. Since then, the 69-year-old has weathered widespread protests over his zero-Covid policy and the deaths of countless people after its abandonment.
But those issues have been avoided at this week's National People's Congress (NPC), a carefully choreographed event that is also set to appoint Xi ally Li Qiang as the new premier. On Friday, delegates handed Xi a third term as president and re-appointed him head of the country's Central Military Commission in a unanimous vote.
Beijing's Great Hall of the People, a cavernous state building on the edge of Tiananmen Square, was adorned with crimson carpets and banners for the landmark vote, with a military band providing background music. A digital monitor on the edge of the stage proclaimed the final tally -- all 2,952 votes had been cast in favour of giving Xi another term in office.
The announcement was followed by delegates' fervent declarations of allegiance to the Chinese constitution, in a demonstration of loyalty and unanimity. Xi held up his right fist and placed his left hand on a red, leather-bound copy of China's constitution.
In an oath beamed live on state television, he vowed to "build a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious and great modern socialist country". China's close ally Russia swiftly offered Xi its "sincere congratulations" on his re-election.
"Russia highly values your personal contribution toward the strengthening of ties... and strategic cooperation between our nations," President Vladimir Putin said in a letter to his "dear friend" Xi.
Xi's re-election is the culmination of a remarkable rise in which he has gone from being a little-known party apparatchik to the leader of a rising global power. His coronation sets him up to become communist China's longest-serving president, and means Xi could rule well into his seventies if no challenger emerges.
Xi's bold ambitions for the country have translated into a domineering leadership style, with decisions reinforced by loyalists that have risen to top government positions during his decade at the helm.
And having taken power during a time when the CCP's sway seemed to be wavering, he has worked hard to reverse trends that had threatened to weaken its centrality to Chinese society.
"The relentless Xi Jinping agenda of asserting party control over everything that moves is alive and well," said Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and an expert on China, during a recent Asia Society forum.
"They've got two sets of really conflicting tensions: how to reenergise growth in the economy, and how to maintain ideological control over the private sector," he added.
Tearing up the rule book
For decades, China -- scarred by the dictatorial reign and cult of personality of founding leader Mao Zedong -- eschewed one-man rule in favour of a more consensus-based, but still autocratic, leadership. That model imposed term limits on the presidency, with Xi's predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao relinquishing power after 10 years in office.
Xi has torn up that rule book, abolishing term limits in 2018 and allowing a cult of personality to foster his all-powerful leadership. But the beginning of his unprecedented third term comes as the world's second-largest economy faces major headwinds, from slowing growth and a troubled real estate sector to a declining birth rate.
To confront these challenges, Beijing needs to implement structural reforms, one analyst told AFP. "That can't happen without political change. The NPC confirms that there is no change," J Capital Research co-founder and expert on the Chinese economy Anne Stevenson-Yang told AFP.
Relations with the United States are also at a low not seen in decades, with the powers sparring over everything from human rights to trade and technology. "We will see a China more assertive on the global stage, insisting its narrative be accepted," Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, told AFP.
"But it is also one that will focus on domestically making it less dependent on the rest of the world, and making the Communist Party the centrepiece of governance, rather than the Chinese government," he said.
"It is not a return to the Maoist era, but one that Maoists will feel comfortable in," Tsang added. "Not a direction of travel that is good for the rest of the world."