Chinese leader vows to fight pollution and maintain growth

Beijing: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has  pledged to achieve a perilously difficult juggling act: push through reforms that will restructure the nation’s economy, curb its mounting environmental woes and address corruption – all while keeping its economic growth targetsteady at 7.5 per cent.

In his first government work report delivered as premier to the National People’s Congress, Mr Li said development remained “key to solving all our country’s problems”, despite also acknowledging that “inefficient and blind” growth in parts of the economy had contributed to “deep-seated problems”.

“We are at a critical juncture where our path upward is particularly steep,” Mr Li told the annual meeting of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, adding that global economic conditions remained uncertain.

“Deep-seated problems are surfacing. Painful structural adjustments need to be made”.

Mr Li also announced China's 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army would receive a 12.2 per cent budget increase on last year to 808 billion yuan ($147 billion), extending a nearly unbroken run of double-digit hikes in China’s defence budget for the past two decades at a time when regional tensions are high over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

"We will comprehensively enhance the revolutionary nature of the Chinese armed forces, further modernise them and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age," he said.

Beijing has been locked in a war of rhetoric with Tokyo, and has accused Shinzo Abe's government of taking a revisionist approach to Japan's wartime history. China last month declared two memorial days commemorating the Rape of Nanking and the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

In a thinly-veiled swipe at Japan on Wednesday, Mr Li said in his speech that China would “safeguard the victory of World War II . . .  and not allow anyone to reverse the course of history”.

China has been a key engine of the global economy after more than a decade of breakneck growth, but there is growing consensus that the unsustainably cavalier growth model has caused severe imbalances and debt problems that can only be addressed through a significant overhaul of the world’s second-largest economy.

Those reforms were included in an ambitious array proposed by the central government after the Third Plenum in November, which Mr Li said remained the “top priority”  this year.

The list included reforms keenly watched by financial markets, including interest rate and currency exchange liberalisation, but Mr Li reserved especially strong wording for addressing one of China’s most pressing social issues – its environment.

“Smog is affecting larger parts of China and environmental pollution has become a major problem, which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development,” he said.

“We will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty.”

China’s economic rebalancing comes at a time when President Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate power and win back the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese through an eye-catching anti-corruption campaign.

“The social credibility system needs to be improved,” Mr Li said. “Some government employees are prone to corruption and some still do not perform their duties with integrity and diligence.”

The nearly 3000 delegates to the congress observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the Kunming railway station mass stabbing on March 1, in which 29 lives were lost.

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