BEIJING -- Parliament elected Yang Shangkun, a top military leader and ally of elder statesman Deng Xiaoping, as China's new president Friday in a further consolidation of support for the leadership's reform drive.
The election of Yang, 81, by the National People's Congress, China's nominal legislature, to the ceremonial post as head of state had been expected. He replaces Li Xiannian, 78, who has held the post for nearly five years and is retiring.
Yang's election came during voting on several largely ceremonial positions by the nearly 3,000 delegates to the three-week parliament session in the huge crescent auditorium of Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
The voting, open to foreign journalists, was conducted with secret ballots that were deposited into collection receptacles by delegates, including the 84-year-old Deng, as they filed by in line.
Western analysts described Yang's election as a further consolidation by staunch advocates of economic reforms spearheaded by Deng since 1979, following their triumph at a Communist Party congress last fall, and as a nod to the still-powerful military.
A veteran general, Yang ranks third behind Deng and Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang on the party's Central Military Commission, which controls the country's 3 million member armed forces, the People's Liberation Army.
Yang's nomination as president raised some criticism because he is older than the man he was replacing despite Deng's stated effort to pump younger blood into leadership posts.
But Yang, like Deng a native of Sichuan Province, long has been a trusted ally of the senior leader and is committed to a drive to make the military more modern and professional as part of overall reforms.
The session also re-elected Deng as chairman of the less powerful government military commission. The party and government military chairmanships are the only formal positions Deng still holds.
Wang Zhen, 80, a veteran general and an organizer of land reclamation efforts in Xinjiang Province in the 1950s, was elected China's vice president.
Born in 1907, Yang joined the communists at 18 and served under Mao Tse-tung, taking part in the 1934-1935 Long March to escape Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists. After 1949, he served as a key party operative and military commander.
After the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he was purged by radical leftists, stripped of all posts and jailed. He re-emerged in 1978 and was rehabilitated after Deng regained power, serving in several senior posts in southern Guangdong Province.
Although the Chinese presidency carries little real power, holders of the office have wide prestige and a platform for their views, representing the government overseas or meeting foreign leaders.
Yang is China's fourth president. When his predecessor, Li, was elected in June 1983 under a new constitution, he was the first president in 15 years following a lapse dating from the Cultural Revolution.
Liu Shao-chi, who followed Mao as president, was purged in 1968 and died in prison a year later. The post, seen as a means of a broader sharing of power, was not resumed until seven years after Mao's 1976 death.