The President of the People's Republic of China (国家主席 guo2 jia1 zhu3 xi2) is the highest state office in the People's Republic of China and the office was created by the 1982 Constitution. Formally, the President is elected by the National People's Congress in accordance with Article 62 of the Constitution. In practice, who is President is determined after negotiations among the top leaders of the Communist Party of China.
The term President is the official translation for the term zhuxi (主席 zhu3 xi2) instead of the term zongtong (总统 zong3 tong3) which is the usual translation for the term President. More confusingly zhuxi is usually translated Chairman in other contexts. The reason for the confusing translation was that the authors of the 1982 constitution considered the term zongtong to be too non-Marxist while the English term Chairman had too many associations with Mao Zedong.
Since the early-1990's, the President has generally be responsible for establishing general policy and direction for the state and leaves responsibility for the implementation details to the Premier of the People's Republic of China. In marked contrast to the system of the Soviet Union when the President was a powerless figurehead, the Chinese Presidency has grown be a quite powerful position.
Also since the 1990's, it has been general practice for the President to also serve as the General Secretary of the Communist Party.
It is key for the general secretary to seal his power by adding the presidency to his powerful collection of titles. This effectively removes any power tension between the top communist leader and the Head of State.
The relationship between the President and the military is a bit more murky. The potential for conflict is lessened when as during the Jiang era, the President is also chairman of the state Central Military Commission. However, there is a source of potential conflict when this is not the case as the situation in 2003 when top communist leader Hu Jintao was elected President without being elected the CMC. In addition, most of the members of both the Party and the State Central Military Commission are uniformed senior general which gives the People's Liberation Army a some degree of autonomy, which however is limited by the existence of political officers.
In principle, when the President is also party general secretary, he could order the Party Central Military Commission to order the state Central Military Commission to do something, however how this would work in a crisis in unclear.
There have been proposals to constitutionally change the system of command to form a National Security Council which is modelled after the National Security Council of the United States which would give the President undisputed command of the military which would then be just another ministry. These proposals are currently not being actively discussed because of opposition from senior generals and because such acts would be seen as a political attack against the Chairman of the CMC, Jiang Zemin.
Originally, in the constitution of 1954, the President (or Chairman) of the PRC was intended to be very powerful. Serving both as the Head of State, and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The president had special powers to call upon emergency meetings during a crisis or concerns of national security. This was not a problem during Mao Zedong's tenure as Head of State due to the fact that he concurrently served as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. However, when Liu Shaoqi was President, it was evident in that the presidency was little more than a figurehead. The most notorious example of the disregard for the position was shown during the Cultural Revolution when President Liu Shaoqi was arrested and humiliated by the Red Guard.
During the period from 1969-1982, the presidency was abolished mainly due to the arrest of the President Liu Shaoqi. The duties associated with the Head of State were passed to the Chairman of the National People's Congress. The exact reason why Mao Zedong refused to reinstate the presidency was unclear, however it is known that Mao does not want his political struggle with Liu Shaoqi to be remembered as his attempt to claim the title of the presidency for himself. During the early 1980s, it became clearer that China needed a person to serve as the Head of State. Song Qingling, former vice-president of PRC, was named to be the Honorary President of the PRC before the passage of the constitution of 1982.
In the constitution of 1982, the President was conceived of as a figurehead head of state with actual state power resting in the hands of the Premier of the People's Republic of China and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China both of which were conceived of as being separate people. In the original(1982 constitution) plan, the Party would develop policy, the state would execute it, and the power would be divided to prevent a cult of personality from forming as it did with the case of Mao Zedong.
Subsequent events caused the office to have much larger powers than was originally intended. In 1989, the President Yang Shangkun was able in cooperation with the then head of the Central Military Commission Deng Xiaoping to use the office of the President to declare martial law in Beijing and order the military crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This was in direct opposition to the wishes of the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and proabably a majority of the Politburo Standing Committee.
In the 1990s, the experiment of separating party and state posts was cancelled, and in 1992, the post of President was taken by Jiang Zemin who as General Secretary and chief of the Central Military Commission has continued to make the office of the President a powerful position.
Dong Biwu[?] acted as head of the State (alone from 1969-1972, together with vice-chairman Song Qingling from 1972-1975).