x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

In China, new leadership promises new priorities

The government says it will focus on environmental concerns and boost public services but some analysts doubt whether the Communist Party's next leadership will be able to follow through on their pledges.

Protesters march towards the China Liaison Office of the People's Republic of China during a demonstration in Hong Kong,during the Communist Party's policy address on Tuesday. Jerome Favre / EPA
Protesters march towards the China Liaison Office of the People's Republic of China during a demonstration in Hong Kong,during the Communist Party's policy address on Tuesday. Jerome Favre / EPA

BEIJING // China's government pledged today to repair the ravaged environment and boost public services under its new leadership, an acknowledgement 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, the outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao emphasised 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, Mr 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," Mr 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 towards our country and people, work harder and solve these problems more quickly 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. Mr Xi has raised expectations for change in his first months in office, talking about the urgent need to staunch graft and adhere to laws rather than rule by untrammeled power.

The government also presented its budget today. Among its notable items: defence spending will increase 10.7 per cent to 720 billion yuan (Dh425bn) - higher than the overall spending rate but a slight slowdown from last year's increase of 11.2 per cent. The substantial outlay shows that Mr Xi wants robust backing for the People's Liberation Army at a time when China has tense territorial disputes with neighbours and wants to reduce US influence in the region.

Spending on public safety will increase by 8 per cent to to 769bn yuan, making this the third year in a row that outlays for the police, courts and other law enforcement exceeds defence 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.

Mr Wen's address, though given by the outgoing premier, and the accompanying budget presented by the government are consensus documents approved by the new Xi leadership team.

Mr 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 subsidised housing and other social programs that would boost household consumption. On restoring the environment, Mr Wen called for curbing pollution and reducing energy consumption.

Political analysts said Mr 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 time bomb?" Mr 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 Mr 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," Mr 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 Mr Xi and party power-brokers behind closed doors.

Among the changes: Mr 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 Mr Wen as premier.

Leaders targeted a 7.5 per cent economic growth rate for the coming year, which is the same as last year and lower than the 8 per cent 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 per cent and this year's is expected to be even higher.