China’s National People’s Congress has opened in Beijing, the final stage of the country’s once-in-a-decade leadership change, with top officials promising to fight corruption, address environmental issues and strengthen its military.
In a speech laying out government plans, outgoing premier Wen Jiabao signaled that leaders would no longer emphasize growth at all costs, and instead put priority on social programs alongside economic development.
“We must make ensuring and improving people’s well-being the starting point and goal of all the government’s work,” he said.
The opening of the meeting also saw the unveiling of a budget that seeks to boost defence spending.
At the week-long assembly, China will also see Xi Jinping complete his transition to president, taking over from Hu Jintao.
Earlier, Wen said over the past year China’s economy has thrived despite a harsh global economic climate, and is outperforming most emerging economies.
“Last year, while world economies were retracting, China has prevented a downslope,” Wen said. “We have acheived a 7.8 percent GDP growth, 16m new jobs, laying a good foundation for this year’s economic growth.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Andrew Leung, a political analyst in Hong Kong, said that Chinese leaders want to send a message that inspite of the financial crisis, China continues to succeed economically.
The meeting of about 3,000 Congress members will complete China’s transition that began with a Communist Party congress in November 2012 that appointed Xi as party leader and the country’s new chief.
Wen’s address, and the accompanying budget presented by the government on Tuesday, are consensus documents approved by the new leadership and reflect Xi’s priorities.
Contained in the 2013 budget plan is a $116bn defence budget, which represents an increase by 10.7 percent from the previous year.
The move underlines China’s military ambitions, with Beijing embroiled in a series of territorial disputes with its neighbours.
China’s military spending has triggered concern across Asia and in Washington, with experts saying the totals actually spent are substantially higher than those publicly announced.
Beyond the ruling party, though, the party faces a legitimacy crisis among the public. Many Chinese see business, society and politics as dominated by a party-connected elite and wonder if Xi, as the son of a revolutionary veteran, has the political will to take on entrenched interests.
The disaffected include the middle class, which has risen out of decades of successful market reforms and has tended to support the party, but has also grown weary of what is seen as an increasingly corrupt establishment.
Wen underlined the commitment to fight corruption that party leaders have stressed is vital to their legitimacy and survival.
“We should unwaveringly combat corruption, strengthen political integrity, establish institutions to end the excessive concentration of power and lack of checks on power,” said Wen, who will step down at the end of the meeting.