BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese Communist Party's No. 2 leader was confirmed Friday as premier, tasked with addressing a slowing economy and defusing public anger over corruption, pollution and a growing gap between rich and poor.
China's rubberstamp legislature appointed Li Keqiang to the premiership as a long-orchestrated leadership transition neared its end. Final touches take place Saturday with selections of vice premiers, a central bank governor and finance and other ministers, and the legislature wraps up on Sunday.
Party chief Xi Jinping was appointed Thursday to the ceremonial post of president, completing his ascension as China's pre-eminent leader after being promoted last November to head the Communist Party and the military.
Though the outcome of the legislative session was a foregone conclusion, it's the result of years of fractious behind-the-scenes bargaining. They hail from different factions: Li Keqiang (pronounced lee kuh chee-ahng) is a protege of the now-retired President Hu Jintao while Xi Jinping (pronounced shee jin ping) is the son of a revolutionary veteran with backing among party elders.
Xi cuts an authoritative figure with a confidence and congeniality that was lacking in his predecessor, the aloof and stiff Hu. New Premier Li, from a mid-level official's household, has appeared to be a cautious administrator, like Hu, and has not been associated with particular policies on his rise.
Evidence of their and their patrons' ability to forge consensus will be seen Saturday when appointments to the Cabinet and other top government posts are announced.
As China's top economic official, Li faces politically fraught challenges in keeping growth strong and incomes rising.
China's leaders say they want more sustainable growth based on domestic consumption and technology instead of trade and investment. They have lowered annual growth targets to emphasize the shift. But consumer spending is rising only slowly, which has forced Beijing to keep pumping money into investment to support a sluggish economic recovery.
"If the official data is to be believed, China has been moving in the wrong direction for the past decade - towards 'more investment, less consumption,'" wrote Standard Chartered economists Stephen Green and Wei Li in a research note. "This could create problems."
Reformers say Communist leaders have to curb state companies that dominate industries from energy to telecoms to banking, and encourage free-market competition or growth could sink to 5 percent or lower by 2015, raising the risk of job losses and unrest. That will require Li, who has shown little appetite for confrontation, to challenge politically powerful corporate bosses.
China's leadership is consensus-oriented, so governing the country is often sluggish business because none of the leaders are politically strong enough to prevail independently.
Wu Xiangdong, chairman of a wine company in central Hunan province and one of the congress delegates who poured out of the vast, ornate Great Hall of the People after Friday's vote, said expectations were high for Li, the new premier.
"We are very excited and look forward to the premier and the new generation of leaders to be better able to work on the economy, food safety, the environment and improving social equality," Wu said.
The National People's Congress endorsed Li for the post with a vote of 2,940, with three opposed and six abstaining.
In some intriguing signs of the new leadership's direction, the congress on Friday appointed as supreme court president Zhou Qiang, a provincial party secretary with a reputation as a progressive and a former aide to a well-known legal reformer. On Thursday, another liberal-minded reformer and a close ally of Hu, Li Yuanchao, was named vice president, breaking with the practice of recent years because he is not in the party's seven-member ruling inner sanctum.
The new government will be expected to carry out promises outlined in a policy program delivered last week, including cleaning up the country's environment, fighting graft and improving the social safety net.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald contributed to this report.
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at twitter.com/gillianwong