03/04/2013, 00.00
CHINA
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As NPC opens, Beijing holds back defence spending estimates

by Chen Weijun
Breaking a tradition that began in 2006, China does not release defence spending estimates following rising military tensions with its Asian neighbours. The National People's Congress is getting ready to address issues like corruption, one-child policy and economic stability as well as crown Xi Jinping as China's new leader.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - China's national legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), has declined to announce the country's 2013 defence budget (usually underestimated). This is a departure from the practice established in 2006 of making public the information a day before the opening of the NPC's annual session. Growing territorial disputes and domestic unrest have made the issue very sensitive.

NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying responded with frustration when she was asked about military spending. "It seems China has to explain every year to the outside world why we should strengthen national defence and why we should increase the military budget," Fu said.

The issue transcends formalities because government budgets must be approved by the NPC.

Last year, Chinese officials had announced that military spending would rise 11.2 per cent to 670.27 billion yuan (US$ 107.6 billion now).

According to some Chinese journalists, the actual estimate could come up in discussions in the Great Hall of the People, but it is expected to remain a state secret given China's recent military assertiveness towards its neighbours.

The East China is one of the theatres of confrontation where Beijing and Tokyo claim sovereignty over a group of islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu, whose economic value remains uncertain.

Over time, the issue has become one of principle with both sides engaged in military standoffs on a weekly basis, scrambling fighter planes on some occasions.

The South China Sea is another main theatre of confrontation with China's claims overlapping with those of the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

However, "It won't be good news for the world if a large country like China cannot protect its own security," said Fu, a deputy Foreign minister and former ambassador to Great Britain.

"Strengthening China's defence capability will be conducive to further stability in the region and will be conducive to world peace."

The NPC meeting is a high moment in China's political life. One hundred days after his appointment as secretary general of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping will officially take office as president of the People's Republic of China, crowning the coming to power of the party's 'fifth generation' of leaders.

Various observers expect that in his inaugural speech, Xi will lay out China's priorities, focusing on domestic stability, inflation controls and housing prices.

However, other issues will also be on his agenda. Pollution is a problem that is getting worse. Popular unrest in another as measured by opinions on blogs that express outrage over growing scandals involving corruption and mismanagement, especially in the remoter provinces.

Another issue is that of family planning and the one-child policy that has been in place since 1980, which has led to a shortfall of 400 million births.

Hong Hao, the Hong Kong-based chief China strategist at Bank of Communications International, said many investors were looking for pledges to overhaul the one-child policy - to slow the shrinking of the workforce.

Others are awaiting reforms in the land and household registration systems, which would see millions of farmers move to the cities and advance incoming Prime Minister Li Keqiang's urbanisation strategy.

Li has vowed to create new dividends over the next decade through urbanisation and other reforms, in a bid to offset a fading "demographic dividend" due to the country's ageing population.

Lastly, Xi is expected to focus on fighting corruption. China's next president has already said that he wants to uproot it, and ban all forms of luxury from the ranks of the Communist Party.

Although this has not yet become policy, flowers and expensive meals are no longer included in political meetings.

At the past seven annual meetings of the National People's Congress, lawyer Han Deyun repeatedly called for legislation requiring officials to declare their personal assets.

"There is no law at all on the disclosure of assets at the moment," said the NPC deputy from Chongqing. "We need to make it a legal obligation; otherwise our civil servants will ask 'why should I'?"

Public calls for the disclosure of officials' assets have reached fever pitch in the past few months in the wake of a spate of scandals that revealed the huge fortunes amassed by officials.

Cases of corruption and embezzlement have multiplied over the past few years, touching outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, whose family has allegedly amassed billions of dollars, and even Xi Jinping.

Still, Chinese leaders' obsession with social stability and economic development make any radical change unlikely.

The decision to boost security forces and retain Zhou Xiaochuan as People's Bank of China governor shows that things will stay the same.

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