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China parliament targets growth, graft, well-being
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) March 5, 2013


Hope, despair and apathy as Chinese leaders meet
Beijing (AFP) March 5, 2013 - As China grandly opened its showcase annual parliamentary session in Beijing on Tuesday, the city's residents and visitors reacted with a mixture of hope and despair -- and sometimes apathy.

Some saw prospects for reform, others anger at "wasteful meetings", but the concerns of wide-eyed out-of-town tourists thronging the capital were directed firmly elsewhere.

"Premier Wen is making a speech today?" asked a tourist from Henan province near the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress (NPC) was opening. "That doesn't mean that the Forbidden City is closed, does it?"

The former palace of China's emperors -- Beijing's top attraction -- is across Tiananmen Square from the Soviet-style building that hosts the legislative meeting.

Inside the cavernous hall, China's top leaders, including premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, president Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping, sat in raised rows, each with a white teacup and a copy of Wen Jiabao's work report, in front of cascading red curtains with enormous gold tassels.

Young women in red outfits swarmed onto the stage in a tight formation to pour drinks for the officials, and the sound of rustling paper echoed through the hall's three tiers as some 3,000 delegates turned their pages in unison.

Xi looked relaxed as he walked to his place and Hu listened impassively.

As Wen spoke of making "improving people's well-being" a priority, commuters at Tiananmen West metro station walked indifferently past giant television screens showing his speech live.

But in a country with few opportunities for active involvement in politics, there are many who see the NPC, and a simultaneous meeting of China's highest-profile advisory body, as a potential springboard for reform.

"I don't think the important question is, 'Do the two meetings have power?' The important question is, 'Do the delegates have concern for the people?'" said a 60-year-old woman surnamed Lu, who was visiting a Beijing park despite pollution readings being well above World Health Organisation guidelines.

"Everyone in China knows that power currently lies with only a few, but if delegates do not care for the people then there is never any chance of progress with political reform in the future."

Xian Lan, another woman pensioner, was less philosophical.

"What is the point of all these wasteful, expensive meetings when there are so many poor people in China?", she said.

China Tuesday targeted 2013 economic growth of 7.5 percent and vowed to tackle corruption and improve the quality of life as an annual parliamentary session to seal its transition to new leadership started.

Outgoing premier Wen Jiabao also pledged to protect China's "territorial integrity" as the government announced another double-digit rise in military spending to modernise the world's largest standing army amid mounting tensions.

In his final major act after a decade in charge of day-to-day government, Wen delivered a "work report" to about 3,000 delegates at the opening of the National People's Congress (NPC), the rubber-stamp parliament.

The NPC is meeting for nearly two weeks and will finalise a power transfer to Li Keqiang as Wen's successor. It will also appoint Communist Party chief Xi Jinping as state president in succession to Hu Jintao.

Wen bowed deeply to the representatives arrayed under a giant red star in Beijing's Great Hall of the People before starting his farewell speech, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

He began with a list of achievements during his time, among them manned spaceflight, China's first aircraft carrier, its own satellite navigation system, a high-speed rail network and the hosting of the 2008 Olympics.

But public concern on the country's lively social media scene is mounting about a range of problems including corruption, pollution and skewed economic growth as the country's rich-poor chasm widens.

The new leadership have raised expectations with a deluge of propaganda during their first four months running the Communist Party, with pledges of cleaner government and greater devotion to people's livelihoods.

Wen adopted a similar tone, promising to make "improving people's well-being the starting point and goal of all the government's work" and mentioning air pollution, medical care and housing as key areas for improvement.

"We should unwaveringly combat corruption, strengthen political integrity... and ensure that officials are honest, government is clean and political affairs are handled with integrity," he added.

The wealth of party leaders at all levels has become a burning issue in China, with foreign media reports last year focusing on the riches accrued by the families of Xi and Wen themselves.

Outside the hall, ordinary citizens were sceptical about the government's promises. Xian Lan, a pensioner, asked: "What is the point of all these wasteful, expensive meetings when there are so many poor people in China?"

China's economy is a key driver of the global recovery but has struggled in the face of weakness at home and in overseas markets.

It grew 7.8 percent in 2012, the worst performance for 13 years, but normally exceeds the target set at the NPC. Wen said the target for this year was about 7.5 percent, "a goal that we will have to work hard to attain".

The inflation target was set at 3.5 percent, after it reached 2.6 percent in 2012, with the premier saying China was "still under considerable inflationary pressure".

A separate government document laid down a 10.7 percent rise in defence spending to 720.2 billion yuan ($115.7 billion).

China's military budgets have risen steadily in recent years, and experts say the actual totals are usually substantially higher than the publicly announced figures.

Wen's voice grew to its loudest when he pledged to "resolutely uphold China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity" -- comments that were met with loud applause.

Japan, which has the fiercest maritime rows with China, "intends to continue watching China's defence policy and its military strength closely", Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was quoted by Kyodo News as saying.

The NPC will pass measures pre-approved by party leaders, including a reorganisation of government bureaucracy that will see major ministerial changes, likely to include the abolition of the much-maligned railways ministry.

It may also address China's "re-education through labour" system, which sees petty offenders sent to labour camps without trial and has come under fire for its abuse by local governments seeking to quash dissent.

But Wen did not mention the subject.

Leaders must start meeting the public's raised expectations, say analysts, or risk exacerbating the mounting discontent about corruption, inequality, pollution and other woes.

Zhang Xin, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing, described Wen's speech as unremarkable, not making major announcements and mainly summarising the outgoing government's achievements, which he said were limited.

"This report was very ordinary, nothing really stuck out," he said. "I would describe the achievements of this government as moderate."

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