The outcome of today’s selection of Xi Jinping as China’s president has been a near certainty since he was chosen as successor to Hu Jintao five years ago. That left little drama for observers awaiting the largely formulaic vote today to choose Xi for his third and least powerful title after he was named Communist Party general secretary and head of its central military commission in November.
Still, one member of the National People’s Congress added a peep of dissent, casting a single vote against Xi versus 2,952 in favor. Including three abstentions, Xi won a comfortable 99.86% margin, which Eric Fish, an editor for the Economic Observer newspaper in Beijing, noted was just ahead of the 97.62% for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2007 but trailing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s 99.98% in 2009. Who was the lone dissenter? Initial speculation was that it could have been Xi himself.
As some prominent liberal commentators including the journalist Wang Keqin pointed out today on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblog, there is a seemingly grim precedent of a lone opposing vote against China’s top leader. In 1949, upon the founding of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the new central government, taking 575 of 576 votes. The single objection has been a mystery glossed over in official accounts. Many people had assumed that Mao, in an uncharacteristic act of modesty, declined to vote for himself. Journalist Dai Qing has argued that the commonly held belief was wrong. A professor and philosopher named Zhang Dongsun, who Mao credited with facilitating the talks leading to the peaceful surrender of Beijing by the defeated Nationalist forces, cast the lone nay, Dai wrote in her 2008 Chinese-language book In Buddha’s Hand: Zhang Dongsun and His Era.
Zhang initially held high office, sitting on the Central Government Committee of newly formed People’s Republic, its top governing body. But he was accused of espionage after he attempted to mediate between Beijing and Washington in the run up to the Korean War. Mao initially shielded Zhang from punishment, but he was one of the first scholars to be targeted by a purge in 1952. He faced two decades of maltreatment and eventually died in detention in 1973 during the later stages of the Cultural Revolution.
Dai argues in her book that Mao took the vote against him personally and it led to Zhang’s downfall. In a review of her book for The China Journal, Warren Sun, a professor of Chinese studies at Australia’s Monash University, questions the evidence that Zhang cast the single vote against Mao, saying there was a likelihood it was simply a miscast ballot, with the elector forgetting to check a name. He continues:
To hype the dubious missing vote of confidence, and to reduce Zhang Dongsun’s fate to a personal grievance on Mao’s part, trivializes the significance of the first purge of a high-profile intellectual in Mao’s new regime, which was a harbinger of what was to come. It distracts from the big picture of Mao’s policy toward intellectuals. In summer 1951 when Zhang was in deep trouble, Mao had already revealed to Ding Ling, the renowned woman writer, his impending agenda to remold Chinese intellectuals. Given the inevitable clash between his brand of bourgeois liberalism and the CCP’s official Marxist ideology, Zhang’s fate was sealed, regardless of whether he had voted for Mao.
Xi Jinping is, of course, no Mao. While he holds an elite communist pedigree—his father Xi Zhongxun was a guerilla leader and Mao ally who later served as vice premier—his is more a first-among-equals than an all-powerful autocrat. His elevation to the top of China’s political system comes from his acceptability to various factions and power brokers within the party. Still, he has claimed the chief leadership positions within the party and government faster than predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. No nay vote—symbolic, accidental or otherwise—will do much to stop that.