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China premier, once friend of democracy activists, elected on 99 percent of vote

China Daily via Reuters

China's newly-elected Premier Li Keqiang (left) shakes hands with former Premier Wen Jiabao as China's President Xi Jinping, seated right, and other delegates applaud Friday. Li was once friends with democracy activists, but a dissident accused him of covering up an HIV scandal.

BEIJING -- China's legislature formally chose Li Keqiang as premier on Friday, installing an English-speaking bureaucrat as the man in charge of the world's second-largest economy.

The largely rubber-stamp National People's Congress chose Li, 57, to replace Wen Jiabao.

Nearly 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to vote on Li's appointment, putting the final stamp of approval on a generational transition of power.

Li drew only three no votes and six abstentions from the carefully selected parliament.

China's parliament named Xi Jinping as president four months after he took charge of the Communist party pledging reform. John Sparks, Channel Four Europe reports.

He rose and shook hands with Xi Jinping, who was elected president by the legislature on Thursday, as legislators applauded.

While Xi is the country's top leader, Li heads China's State Council and is charged with executing government policy and overseeing the economy.

A reformer?
As premier, Li is faced with one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor.

"I believe that in this class (of new leaders), his intent to reform is quite strong," said Chen Ziming, an independent political commentator in Beijing. "He has a close relationship with reform-minded economists."

More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Li was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the decade of reform under Deng Xiaoping, which ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by troops.

As a student at Peking University, Li befriended ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom later became outright challengers to party control.

His friends included activists who went into exile after the June 1989 crackdown.

"He has a better understanding of how Westerners think," a source familiar with China's foreign policy told Reuters.

Li, who has a degree in law and a doctorate in economics, will take the reins of an economy whose growth slowed in 2012 to a 13-year low, albeit at a 7.8 percent rate that is the envy of other major economies.

Both Xi and Li will need to deliver a blueprint to stabilize the real estate market. They need to do this quickly to calm a market in which real estate prices have soared 10-fold in major cities during the last decade.

Dissident beaten up
Across China, people are resentful of the widening income inequality gap.

China has 2.7 million U.S. dollar millionaires and 251 billionaires, according to the Hurun Report.

However, 13 percent of its people live on less than $1.25 per day, according to United Nations data. The average annual urban disposable income is just $3,500.

During his time in central Henan province from 1998 to 2004, Li was criticized by activists for helping to cover up the extent of an HIV/AIDS crisis there, when hundreds of thousands of impoverished farmers became infected through botched blood-selling schemes.

Leading dissidents, Hu Jia told Reuters he was detained in Henan, while Li was governor, for four days in 2002, when Hu was advocating for rural victims of AIDS.

"When the AIDS epidemic exploded, everything that Li Keqiang did was with the aim of covering it up," Hu said. "He didn't allow the ordinary people to go to Beijing to petition, meet the media, and didn't allow Aizhixing, the institute I was working at, [to] enter Henan to examine and report on the reality of the AIDS situation."

Hu said two state security officers beat and kicked him on Thursday till his head bled. He was summoned by police on a charge of "provoking quarrels and making trouble." The Dongcang police station, where Hu was held, could not be reached for comment. 

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