China's new priority: social wellbeing over growth
BEIJING (AP) — China's government pledged Tuesday to repair the ravaged environment and boost public services under its new leadership, an acknowledgment that the country's quality of life was sidelined during the outgoing administration's decade of breakneck economic growth.
In an annual policy speech that served as his swansong, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the country's economic achievements under his stewardship — including weathering the 2008 global financial crisis — but also outlined the myriad problems his team was handing over to its successor.
Chief among them: a sputtering growth model, rampant degradation of the country's air, waterways and soil, a burgeoning income gap and widespread corruption. The public also is unhappy about problems with food safety, health care and housing, Wen acknowledged.
"Some of these problems have built up over time, while others have emerged in the course of economic and social development, and still others have been caused by inadequacies and weaknesses in our government work," Wen said in a 100-minute speech opening the national legislature's annual session in the Great Hall of the People, his last address before stepping down.
"We should have a strong sense of responsibility toward our country and people, work harder and solve these problems more quickly in order to meet people's expectations and never let them down," he said.
The speech outlined the government's priorities as it nears the conclusion of a once-a-decade leadership transition that began four months ago when Xi Jinping and other younger leaders were appointed to run the ruling Communist Party. The largely ceremonial legislature, known as the National People's Congress, caps the transition and approves appointments to top government posts to manage the economic and foreign policies of the world's second largest economy and fledgling global power.
Together, the new leaders come to power at a time when Chinese feel the policies that delivered stunning growth are foundering in the ill-effects of corruption and environmental degradation and that benefits unfairly accrue to a party-connected elite. Xi has raised expectations for change in his first months in office, talking about the urgent need to stanch graft and adhere to laws rather than rule by untrammeled power.
The government also presented its budget Tuesday. Among its notable items: Defense spending will increase 10.7 percent to 720 billion yuan ($114 billion) — higher than the overall spending rate but a slight slowdown from last year's increase of 11.2 percent. The substantial outlay shows that Xi wants robust backing for the People's Liberation Army at a time when China has tense territorial disputes with neighbors and wants to reduce U.S. influence in the region.
Spending on public safety will increase by 8 percent to to 769 billion yuan ($124 billion), making this the third year in a row that outlays for the police, courts and other law enforcement exceeds defense spending. This, despite public unhappiness over the enormous state security system that is used to repress threats to the party and runs roughshod over the legal system.
Wen's address, though given by the outgoing premier, and the accompanying budget presented by the government Tuesday are consensus documents approved by the new Xi leadership team.
Wen called several times for a change in the country's growth model to reduce waste, build out the service sector as a source of much-needed employment and direct spending to subsidized housing and other social programs that would boost household consumption. On restoring the environment, Wen called for curbing pollution and reducing energy consumption.
Political analysts said Wen's speech read like a laundry list of the challenges his administration was leaving the new leadership but was woefully short on specific measures to address the problems raised.
Retired government researcher Yao Jianfu, a specialist on rural affairs, noted the lack of specific policy suggestions on how to help rural migrant workers enjoy a fairer status in the cities that they work and live.
"It's as though in the past 10 years he's just transferred this problem to his successor, Li Keqiang. Is this a timebomb?" Yao said. "If there's an economic downturn and massive unemployment, will the 200 million migrant workers become the main force of the next Cultural Revolution?"
Beijing historian Zhang Lifan was similarly critical of Wen's farewell address, calling it "comprehensive but mediocre."
"The first half of the report was about him affirming his work over the past 10 years, while the latter half was an account of the mess he's left his descendants as well as warnings about what to do," Zhang said. "A report like this did not move me one bit."
Even a delegate to the top government advisory body, members of whom are usually coached to only give positive remarks about the annual work report, said what mattered was whether the objectives laid out in it were met in reality.
"The report itself of course is good, but the implementation needs to be solid and real, so it will not turn out to be a gust of wind," said Yu Wenliang, a Christian priest from Yunnan province.
Hundreds of soldiers, police and plainclothes security officer — equipped with fire extinguishers and anti-explosive blankets — ringed the Great Hall and the adjacent Tiananmen Square for the opening session. The public was kept well away behind cordons as the nearly 3,000 congress deputies gathered for the 13-day session.
The legislature, most of whose members belong to the party and are bound to vote as the leadership dictates, will approve a proposed streamlining of government ministries, as well as appointments. In reality, the decisions have already been made by Xi and party power-brokers behind closed doors.
Among the changes: Xi will be formally given the title of president, taking the last of the titles from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. The party's No. 2, Li Keqiang, will replace Wen as premier.
Leaders targeted a 7.5 percent economic growth rate for the coming year, which is the same as last year and lower than the 8 percent rate that dominated planning for decades. However, the figure is largely symbolic because in reality growth has typically been higher. Last year's growth was 7.8 percent and this year's is expected to be even higher.
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler, Christopher Bodeen and Didi Tang contributed to this report.