03/15/2017, 16.40
CHINA

Li Keqiang’s press conference: what was said and what was not

Bernardo Cervellera

In a two-hour press conference, the prime minister answered 18 questions on topics ranging from US-China relations and the south China Sea to Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the economy. Despite the attempt to smooth things over, tensions remain, like Beijing trade war against Taiwan and South Korea, and its “distortions" over Hong Kong. Whilst urging ASEAN countries not to "take sides", China continues its militarisation of disputed islands.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Following tradition, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang held a press conference this morning, marking the end of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. He answered as many 18 questions from foreign and Chinese journalists.

Those present admired Li’s friendly ease in the Q&A session with the media. The prime minister himself expressed surprise that many foreign reporters could speak good Chinese. Still many doubts remain about a press conference that seemed designed to smooth things over. In reality, recent events contradict what Li said.

The China-US relationship and the economy took the largest chunk of time. This was followed by issues related to the Korean peninsula, and relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan.

China – United States

Li confirmed that Beijing and Washington are working on a summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Despite the latter’s accusations of currency manipulation against Beijing, threats of imposing taxes on Chinese imports, and possible changes to the one China (enhancing the relationship with Taiwan), Li expressed hope that the relationship could “continue to move forward in a positive direction."

The Chinese leader noted that a trade war between the two powers would damage US companies more. Therefore, he suggested the two sides "sit down and talk to each other and work together to find solutions.”

US-China relations are entangled with the South China Sea, China’s military escalation, and US threats. At least two journalists pointed out that the countries of Southeast Asia are split, forced to "pick a side" between the two. Li said he did not want to see ASEAN countries "take sides" like during the Cold War.

He noted that Beijing would continue to support ASEAN’s important role in the region and cultivate good neighbourly relations with its members, using diplomacy to resolve territorial disputes. However, Li did not mention that China is still militarising some disputed islands in the South China Sea under the cover of "civil construction" with the spending listed outside its military budget.

Economy

The prime minister said that his country’s economy can continue to grow and meet its target of 6.5 per cent avoiding a hard landing. Li added that China’s steady economic growth over the past four years was not achieved by all-out stimulus and easy loans, but by upgrading industry and increasing consumption. Yet, in January and February the government injected huge amounts of capital into the economy.

Li reiterated that with 6.5 per cent growth China would remain a major force boosting global economic growth, adding that the biggest challenge was cutting administrative procedures and red tape.

Over the past four years, China has created more than 13 million jobs per year. Because of restructuring, it will have to find work for at least a million unemployed this year. With this in mind, the government set up a special fund of 100 billion yuan to help people seeking work.

Korean peninsula

Speaking about North Korea and its nuclear programme, Li warned that “tensions on the Korean peninsula may lead to conflict."

He failed however to mention the standoff with Seoul and Washington over the THAAD anti-missile system, which Beijing strongly opposes. Notwithstanding the claim that it is a champion of an “open door” globalised economy, China is still on an economic war footing with South Korea.

Hong Kong and Taiwan

On Hong Kong, Li highlighted more economic cooperation between the mainland and Hong Kong and gave details of a new initiative to allow Hong Kong investors to invest in the Chinese bond market.

He added that the principle of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong needs to be perceived and implemented in its entirety. “This principle needs to be applied without being distorted,” he said.

Ten days ago, in his report to the National People’s Congress, Li said that” The notion of HK independence will lead nowhere". At that time, no mention was made of "distortions" or of "one country, two systems", nor of the abductions of bookstore staff, business people, and large-scale influence on Hong Kong elections.

With respect to Taiwan, Li proclaimed that China and Taiwan are one family, but he did not say that no Taiwanese TV network was allowed to broadcast the press conference live. Li naturally dismissed the possibility of the island's independence, but hid the fact that the mainland is engaged in a trade war against it since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president, with Taiwanese products held up at customs.

One last important thing that Li omit to talk about is his own future. Many observers believe that in October, at the next Party congress, he will be removed by Xi Jinping. Very cautiously, at the end of the press conference he only said: "We will see each other again when there’s a chance”.

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