BEIJING – China’s leaders have named Li Keqiang premier, placing him at the helm of the world’s second-largest economy.
Mr Li, who already holds the number two spot in the Communist Party, takes over from Wen Jiabao.
Mr Li was elected for a five-year term but, like his predecessor, would be expected to spend a decade in office.
On Thursday, Xi Jinping was confirmed by legislators as the new president, completing the transition of power from Hu Jintao.
Li Keqiang’s widely-signalled elevation was confirmed by 3,000 legislators at the National People’s Congress, the annual parliament session, in Beijing. He received 2,940 votes to three, with six abstentions.
From humble beginnings, Li Keqiang has risen high in politics, but his career has not been without controversy. During the mid-1990s a scandal of stunning proportions devastated many rural communities in Henan.
Thousands of farmers and their families contracted HIV after receiving contaminated blood transfusions. Most infections in the government-backed blood-selling scheme happened before Li Keqiang became the province’s party boss. But he was widely criticised for silencing those speaking out.
Many villagers still travel to Beijing every year to protest about the issue. One demonstrator told the BBC she hoped Li Keqiang would pay more attention, saying she had still not received any compensation. But others have seen a different side to the politician. One gay-rights activist told the BBC that Li Keqiang was very “easy-going” during a recent meeting. “He didn’t act at all like a government official,” said Kong Lingkun. “During the discussion he wanted everyone’s opinion and he encouraged us to speak freely.”
China’s new premier likes to project an image that he’s modern, sophisticated and ready to listen. But he has also shown he can be ruthless when the party’s reputation is at risk.
As premier, he will oversee a large portfolio of domestic affairs, managing economic challenges, environmental woes and China’s urbanisation drive.
The appointments seal the shift from one generation of leaders to the next. A raft of vice-premiers and state councillors will be named on Saturday, before the NPC closes on Sunday.
Mr Li, 57, who is seen as close to outgoing leader Hu Jintao, speaks fluent English and has a PhD in economics.
He has called for a more streamlined government, eliminating some ministries while boosting the size of others.
The son of a local official in Anhui province, he became China’s youngest provincial governor when he was tasked to run Henan.
But his time there was marked by a scandal involving the spread of HIV through contaminated blood.
Mr Li is expected to end the NPC with a press conference on Sunday, given by Wen Jiabao in the past.
On Thursday, Xi Jinping’s move was approved by 2,952 votes to one, with three abstentions.
Hours later, US President Barack Obama called both to congratulate him and raise concerns over ongoing issues, including cyber hacking and North Korea.
“Both leaders agreed on the value of regular high-level engagement to expand co-operation and co-ordination,” a White House statement said.
Mr Obama is sending both Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry to Beijing in coming days, in an apparent bid to reach out to the new administration.
In an editorial, state-run Global Times said Mr Xi and his colleagues needed to show powerful leadership to unite society.
“China cannot stop developing or fighting corruption. Social unity is the key to how China can stand against complex international affairs,” it said.
Meanwhile, prominent dissident Hu Jia said he was detained and beaten by police on Thursday after he criticised the election of Mr Xi.
“I criticised Xi and Li a lot during the party sessions on the fake election and they weren’t happy with me,” the well-known HIV/Aids activist told the BBC.
He said authorities were also angry because he had arranged meetings with Liu Xia, wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is under house arrest.
“Two state security members threw me into the air and I landed on my head,” he said. “I was wearing a hat so the wound wasn’t big but there was blood on my head.”
He said they also turned him upside down on a chair, causing him to sprain his mid-section, but said police refused him treatment for his injuries.