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Originally published Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 6:24 PM

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China's Xi caps rise to take on myriad challenges

Xi Jinping caps his rise to the helm of China at a time when calls are mounting for bold leadership to tackle faltering economic growth, unbridled corruption and the befouling of the country's environment that endanger his party's legitimacy.

Associated Press

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BEIJING —

Xi Jinping caps his rise to the helm of China at a time when calls are mounting for bold leadership to tackle faltering economic growth, unbridled corruption and the befouling of the country's environment that endanger his party's legitimacy.

Xi was elevated to the presidency Thursday by the rubber-stamp national legislature, giving him the last of the three titles held by his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Xi already was China's leader after being appointed head of the Communist Party and chairman of the military last November in a once-a-decade handover to a new group of leaders.

Xi now steers a rising global power beset with many domestic challenges that will test his leadership. Chief among them are a sputtering economy that's overly dominated by powerful state industries and mounting public anger over widespread corruption, a burgeoning income gap and social inequality.

An increasingly vocal Chinese public is expressing impatience with the government's unfulfilled promises to curb abuses of power by local officials, better police the food supply and clean up the country's befouled rivers, air and soil.

"What do ordinary people care about? Food safety, and smog if you are in a big city, and official corruption," said the prominent Chinese author and social commentator Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun. "They just want to have a peaceful, stable and safe life. To have money and food, and live without worry of being tortured, or having their homes forcefully demolished."

"The entire country is watching for Xi's next step," the writer said.

That sentiment was echoed by at least one National People's Congress delegate as he filed out from the huge, red-carpeted cavern of Beijing's Great Hall of the People after Thursday's vote. Li Qinghe veered slightly from the ingratiating remarks that have come to be expected of deputies, saying that while he "resolutely endorsed" Xi's selection as president, the position was vested with high expectations.

"I hope that he will pay more attention to problems affecting the people's lives," said Li, a petrochemical plant worker and delegate from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, who cited as his concerns jobs for rural migrants, schools for their children and affordable medical care.

Early indications of Xi's priorities as leader can be found in a government work report delivered at last week's opening of the legislative session. In it were pledges to clean up the country's environment, fight pervasive graft and official extravagance and improve welfare benefits for the poor.

The report, delivered by Premier Wen Jiaobao in his last speech before stepping down, promised to give private companies a fairer chance to compete, but did not say how Beijing would deal with big state companies controlling most of China's industries that economists have warned need to be curbed in order to preserve future growth. Many experts fear the government will be too hamstrung by powerful interest groups, linked to state industries, to be able to make these changes. But few doubt the urgency of the reform that's needed.

"Now most Chinese can still afford to keep their stomach full, so there isn't any intense resistance," said Murong Xuecun, the writer. "But if the economy enters a depression, it will be hard to say."

Currently, both the Communist Party and the government enjoy little credibility with the public, said Zhang Ming, a China politics expert at prestigious Renmin University in Beijing.

"The way to regain credibility is to at least show some results, but at this point that can't be seen, and I predict there won't be any real results later," Zhang said.

Xi's accession marks only the second orderly transfer of power in more than six decades of Communist Party rule. He was the only candidate for president in Thursday's ballot in the country's figurehead parliament. The delegates voted 2,952-1 for Xi in balloting that amounts to a political ritual echoing the decisions of the party leadership. Three delegates abstained.

After the result was announced, Xi bowed to delegates and turned to Hu, seated on his right. The two shook hands and posed for photos.

Xi, 59, also was appointed chairman of the government commission that carries out orders of a parallel party body controlling China's military.

Named vice president in a vote of 2,839-80 was Li Yuanchao, a liberal-minded reformer and a close ally of Hu for decades. The move breaks with the practice of recent years, because Li is not in the party's seven-member ruling inner sanctum. It is seen as a concession to Hu's lingering influence and as a reward to a capable if not wholly popular official.

Ahead of the votes on the government's top slots, legislators approved a government restructuring plan that abolishes the Railways Ministry and combines two agencies that regulate newspapers and broadcasters into a super media regulator. It also merges the Health Ministry with the commission that oversees the much-disliked rules that limit many families to one child.

The son of a revolutionary veteran, Xi cuts an authoritative figure with a confidence and congeniality that was lacking in his predecessor, the aloof and stiff Hu. He quickly moved to court the military after taking over from Hu as head of the party's Central Military Commission, making high-profile visits to naval, air force and infantry bases and meeting with nuclear missile commanders.

Xi has also sought to court other constituencies. He made a trip to the south to show he's interested in economic reforms, repeatedly stated his staunch belief in party power to appeal to hard-liners, visited the poor to burnish his common-man credentials and espoused the "Chinese Dream" to tap into middle class aspirations.

But for Xi to consolidate his power within the party, he will come up against various interest groups, such as the sons and daughters of communist China's founding fathers who want to keep benefiting from their connections, or those with links to banks and state industries who don't want their privileged positions threatened.

Ideologically, there are those who believe China needs an even stronger, more authoritarian government that promotes more egalitarian economic and social policies, while others want a transition to a more democratic government.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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