03/05/2014, 00.00
CHINA
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National People's Congress to focus on China's priorities: the economy, pollution and defence

by Chen Weijun
China's parliament opened today. Its purpose is to ratify government decisions. Prime Minister Li Keqiang lays out his government's goals before the 3,000 delegates present, namely a 7.5 economic growth, higher military spending, and war on smog and corruption.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The economy, pollution, defence and corruption are the main issues the National People's Congress (NPC) will have to tackle at its 12th session, the first since President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang came to power.

In his opening address this morning, the prime minister addressed the 3,000 NPC delegates present today for the opening ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Beginning with the economy, Mr Li explained that the Chinese government expects economic growth to be 7.5 per cent this year, and this requires a stable social situation. At the same time, it plans to pursue its military build-up to assert its regional supremacy.

He explained that China would push ahead with key fiscal and financial (exchange and interest rates) reforms that should eventually allow the country to cut its dependence on the fixed asset investment that currently drives economic growth and has inflated a damaging property market bubble.

The government plans to allow more private capital into areas controlled by state-owned enterprises, such as banks, oil, power, railway, telecom, resources, and utilities.

At the same time, with GDP growth target at "about 7.5 per cent", China's priority remains stability. Indeed, given the country's huge social imbalances, Chinese society can remain stable - and firmly in the hands of Communist Party - only if it guarantees jobs, as well as minimum incomes and revenues for the middle class.

No further steps are to be taken toward tightening the property market, although Li warned that real estate prices in some cities had been rising too fast.

Equally, no major reform is envisaged to control pollution, a growing problem throughout the country. In fact, although the government said that it would "'declare war'' on smog, it has not yet adopted the measures needed to stop harmful gas emissions or cut coal use.

Yet, "This is an acknowledgement at the highest level that there is a crisis," said Craig Hart, expert on Chinese environmental policy and associate professor at China's Renmin University.

Although, "Their approach is going to have to be pro-economy, I think they will pump money into upgrading plants. This could be another green stimulus although it is not being packaged that way."

One area where there will be no penny pinching is the military. China plans to boost defence spending to 808.23 billion yuan (US$ 131 billion) this year, up 12.2 per cent from last year and the fourth annual double-digit increase, according to country's defence budget.

China's military spending jumped by 10.7 per cent in 2013, 11.2 per cent in 2012 and 12.7 per cent in 2011, reflecting Beijing's attitude towards its territorial disputes with its neighbours, especially Japan.

In a government work report, Li said China would "strengthen national defence and reserve forces, place war preparations on a regular footing and enhance border, coastal and air defences."

He added, "We will safeguard the victory of World War Two and the post-war international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history."

Yue Gang, a retired colonel, said the increase was a response to provocations from neighbouring countries, especially Japan.

"By showing more muscle, China is hoping that the other nations [would] be more cautious before taking their moves," he said. "China believes that only by gearing-up [its] military, the chances of a war will be minimised."

The reference is to the dispute with Japan and other ASEAN countries over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Finally, Li said that the government intends to build a system to fight corruption and show no mercy to guilty officials.

Although he did not mention Zhou Yongkang, the former powerful public security tsar who is apparently under investigation by the authorities, the prime minister reiterated his intention to hunt tigers and flies in the fight against corruption.

As reported by state news agency Xinhua, in his address in March 2013, President Xi Jinping vowed to crack down on both "tigers" and "flies" - euphemisms for powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats - in his campaign against corruption and petty officialdom.

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