China sets lower growth target as annual congress begins

Beijing (dpa) – China’s Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday lowered the growth target for China this year to “approximately 7 per cent.”

The sobering projection was in his report presented at the opening of the 11-day annual session of its nominal state parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Li’s speech outlined a government work report on the country’s key economic policies for this year.

He said China faces challenges including sluggish investment growth, falling prices on manufactured products and an “inefficient” growth model, coupled with problems of overcapacity and lack of innovation.

“We must face these problems head on,” Li said. “In times of peace one must be alert to danger, and in times of stability one must be mindful of the potential for chaos.”

The country’s economy grew last year by 7.4 per cent – the weakest growth in 24 years – missing the 7.5-per-cent target announced at last year’s congress.

Amid slowing Chinese export growth, the government is aiming for more sustainable development to create a “moderately prosperous society” driven by domestic consumption and service industries.

Li promised to give small business owners and foreign investors a bigger role in the economy – reducing by half the number of fields where foreign investment is restricted – while encouraging Chinese companies to expand overseas.

The government will also push forward long-anticipated reforms to improve the corporate structure and performance of state-owned enterprises, which dominate fields such as telecoms, shipping, securities, banking and oil and gas.

Half of Chinese debt is owed by companies, most of them property developers or state-owned enterprises that benefit from monopolies and government subsidies.

A budget report from the Ministry of Finance on Thursday said China planned to increase its military budget this year by 10.1 per cent, bringing the total defense budget to about 145 billion dollars.

The increase is lower than last year’s military budget increase of 12.2 per cent but is the fifth year in a row of double-digit increases.

The official military budget also does not include spending on imports of and research on high-tech weapons.

President Xi Jinping and other party leaders were among nearly 3,000 NPC delegates who gathered for the opening of the plenary session.

Some 2,000 members of a political advisory body and hundreds of journalists and observers also attended the opening of the congress in Beijing.

The meetings are followed closely by global markets for signs on the direction of the world’s second-largest economy.

Li gave no indication that the government would change its stance on election reform in Hong Kong despite pressure from activists.

“We are confident that with the central government continuing its strong support for Hong Kong and Macau … these two regions will enjoy long-term prosperity and stability,” Li said.

Thousands of pro-democracy campaigners occupied key streets in Hong Kong for 79 days in the autumn to protest a plan drawn up by Beijing that would see candidates for the city’s chief executive be pre-selected by a pro-Beijing committee before elections in 2017.

Smaller-scale protests also took place in Macau for similar voting rights.

The former British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau form special administrative regions where residents enjoy several freedoms not given to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Sidebar: Selfies, pollution complaints mark opening of China’s parliament

eijing (dpa) – The grounds of Tiananmen Square, normally gated to traffic and milling with tourists, served as a makeshift car park Thursday for the opening of China’s 11-day annual session of its nominal state parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Police soundlessly patrolled on segways as nearly 3,000 delegates retreated from the chilly morning air into the Great Hall of the People, an imposing Soviet-style building of granite and marble columns that serves as the seat of the country’s legislature.

Most delegates dressed in sedate black, but some stood out in colorful ensembles of red, blue and yellow or in traditional costumes of ethnic minority groups.

Many waited on brown leather chairs and sipped green tea, while others excitedly posed for group photos and “selfies” before ascending a staircase and filing into the large theatre.

After a singing of the Chinese anthem, Premier Li Keqiang opened the congress by outlining key economic policies for the year. Chinese President Xi Jinping was seated in the center among other party leaders on stage.

The snaps of photographers’ cameras and the coordinated flipping of the pages of Li’s government economic work report were the only other sounds that could be heard during his 90-minute speech.

Some observers and staff were spotted taking breaks on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, posing for photographs with groups of young women wearing long red coats with black berets and white gloves.

The official People’s Daily newspaper had described the women as “beautiful ritual girls” and hailed them as “beautiful scenery” of the National Congress of the Communist Party in 2012.

More than 200 wealthy Chinese are delegates to the congress and the concurrent meeting of China’s top political advisory body this year, according to Chinese media reports.

Among them are 36 billionaires including energy tycoon Li Hejun, the chairman of Hanergy, who recently ousted Alibaba CEO Jack Ma as the country’s richest man.

But some delegates came from more humble backgrounds.

Liang Wentong, a farmer of Datuan village, Congjiang County, in the southwestern Guizhou province, is short and slim with dark, weathered hands.

He said farmers would be “able to cope” with China’s slowing economic growth if “it is just for the short term and will get better in the future”.

The environment was one of the only topics where delegates interviewed by dpa readily criticized the government.

Most said they had watched the viral anti-pollution documentary, “Under the Dome” which was released by independent journalist Chai Jing over the weekend.

“Law enforcement has not been strict enough, the bars have not been set high enough, and this has led to slow improvement in the environment,” said NPC delegate Wang Wei, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A grey haze blanketed Beijing Thursday with concentration of PM2.5 – particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres – reaching a high of over 200 micrograms per cubic metre in the afternoon, according to a US embassy reading.

The daily maximum exposure to PM2.5 particles recommended by the World Health Organization is 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

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