POSTED: 7:44 p.m. HST, Mar 16, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 3:52 a.m. HST, Mar 17, 2013
BEIJING >> China's new leaders pledged to run a cleaner, more efficient government and slash spending on official perks today as the ceremonial legislature wrapped up a pivotal session to install a new leadership in a once-a-decade transfer of power.
The transition that began in November under strict orchestration by China's ruling Communist Party has taken place at time of lower estimates of future economic growth and rising public anger over massive corruption, waste, and extravagant spending that are exasperating a yawning wealth gap.
President Xi Jinping told the nearly 3,000 delegates gathered at Beijing's hulking Great Hall of the People that his government would "resolutely reject formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance, and resolutely fight against corruption and other misconduct in all manifestations."
Shortly afterward, freshly appointed Premier Li Keqiang said the central government would slash its payroll and freeze spending on overseas trips, guest houses, office buildings and new vehicles in response to falling revenues.
"The central government will lead by example and all local governments must follow suit," Li said in his first major appearance before domestic and international media.
Li said that the government would have to push hard to meet its economic growth target of 7.5 percent for the year, while funds flowing into central government coffers increased by just 1.6 percent over January and February. Although such low growth is expected to continue, spending on social programs will only increase, forcing the government to cut back in other areas, Li said.
Niu Jun, a scholar at Peking University's School of International Relations, said Xi and Li hit on topics familiar to a Chinese public that has grown weary of promises to fight inefficiency, corruption and waste.
"I don't have terribly high expectations for these new pledges," he said.
However, Niu said Li struck a chord with by placing a new emphasis on handling matters strictly according to procedures rather in the form of some new campaign or crackdown.
"I was especially impressed about Li's commitment to handle matters according to laws and rules. That really shows the government is paying heavy attention to building the legal system," Niu said.
Xi, already the country's overall leader since being named Communist Party general secretary in November, was installed in the largely ceremonial post of president during the 13-day session of the rubberstamp National People's Congress that ended Sunday. Li, the party's No. 2 leader, was named premier on Friday.
On Saturday, legislators endorsed the leadership's slate of veteran technocrats — many with strong international experience — to staff a Cabinet charged with ensuring continued growth through government streamlining, increased consumption and a movement toward higher technology and less labor intensive industries.
They also need to guard against an overseas backlash against a more assertive foreign policy, cyber-hacking and years of scouring the world for resources, and Li sought to send a reassuring message on ties with U.S. — China's most important overseas relationship.
"Like in the past, the new government in China attaches great importance to ties with the U.S.," Li said. China acknowledges differences with Washington, but sees considerable room from growth in investment and trade that reached almost $500 billion last year, he said.
Among Saturday's appointments was Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Paris and has worked in Europe and Africa. And the finance minister was Lou Jiwei, chairman of China's multibillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund and a fixture in international financial circles. Zhou Xiaochuan, another prominent figure, was kept on as central bank governor.
Wang Yi, a career diplomat with experience working on North Korea and other knotty diplomatic issues, was named foreign minister, while head of the manned space program, Gen. Chang Wanquan, was named defense minister.
China's economy is limping out of its deepest slump since the 2008 global crisis, and a dip in February consumer sales and factory output has spurred fears that the rebound might be faltering. Economic growth fell to 7.8 percent last year, China's weakest performance since the 1990s.
Responsibility for the economy will largely fall to Li and vice premier in charge of economic affairs Wang Yang, a reformist ally of now-retired President Hu Jintao.
Also Saturday, in a sign of displeasure with severe pollution, the normally compliant National People's Congress deputies cast an unusually high number of "no" votes for members of its environmental protection committee: 1,969 in favor to 850 opposed, with another 140 abstaining.
Today's closing session was also enveloped in smog, with many schools canceling outdoor sports activities.
Before adjourning today, the congress also approved this year's budget, the Cabinet's report on its work of the previous year, and plans the 2013. The newly appointed congress speaker Zhang Dejiang delivered remarks emphasizing the need for stronger legal protections for the country's 1.3 billion people.
"To ensure people's democratic rights, we must strengthen the rule of law and put democracy within institutional and legal frameworks," he said.