Chinese Premier Li Keqiang committed himself to Beijing’s raft of reform programs. Photo: CCTV screen grab

China’s annual parliamentary session is drawing to a close, with the week-long deliberations and breakout panel discussions culminating in Premier Li Keqiang’s televised press conference on Thursday. 

As expected, there were no bombshells from Li’s long-winded annual press event, since the premier is seeing out his final years in office and set to bow out in early 2023. 

Li’s grip on power is weakened by proposed amendments to laws governing the organization and functioning of the National People’s Congress (NPC) to enable its Standing Committee, while the NPC plenum is in recess, to appoint deputy premiers on the recommendations of the Communist Party’s central leadership. 

These revisions, introduced on the party’s edict and endorsed by the pliant NPC members, will give sweeping powers to the NPC Speaker Li Zhanshu, also the convener of the NPC’s Standing Committee and an ally of President Xi Jinping in the Communist Party’s Politburo, to decide staffing positions in the State Council.

In the past only the NPC’s annual meeting could scrutinize and make such senior appointments. 

These amendments, first in 30 years, have fueled talk that Xi, through NPC Speaker Li, will make easier, quicker personnel reshuffles of the central government.

It is suggested that Xi will instal new deputy premiers in the run-up to next year’s 20th Party Congress when, other than Xi, most standing members of the Politburo such as Li Keqiang are expected to step down. 

But the premier has still sought to lift the prospects of governance and the Chinese economy and recommitted himself to Beijing’s raft of reform programs.

Li, the premier, said at Friday’s press conference that the plans and resolutions passed at this year’s NPC plenum, including the 14th Five-year Plan (2021-2025) and Beijing’s 2035 ideals would set sights on not just this year but also the next decade and beyond. 

Li thanked the 5,000-odd deputies of the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory agency, for ratifying these overarching guiding documents and enshrining the party’s will and directives in these national blueprints for implementation.  

Li Keqiang said 2021’s parliamentary session had its sights on development goals for many years to come. Photo: Xinhua

A summary of the Five-Year Plan shortly after the NPC meeting ended hashed out 20 key development and performance metrics for 2021 and the next five years.

On top of the closely watched above-6% GDP growth goal Li pronounced in his work report last week, other key quotient and indicator targets included doubling national per capita GDP to US$20,000 in the next five years and a 7% average annual increase in research and development spending. More than 100 key infrastructure projects have also been included in the plan. 

Li told reporters that the 142-page Five-Year Plan and 2035 Visions had 70,000 characters and were an all-encompassing tome to set the course of China’s growth. He added 2021 would also mark the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party for people to relish the outlook of the country assuming a more predominant role in the global economy and geopolitics. 

“Going forward, China holds out the promise of being the most important growth engine to lead the world out of the economic malaise from Covid-19 and usher in a new chapter,” said Li. 

6% GDP target ‘not low’ 

When asked about the baseline of 6% annual economic expansion, a target that dismayed some observers who tipped 8% growth, Li argued the projection was anything but pessimistic, given China’s sheer economic size of 100 trillion yuan (US$15.42 trillion) in 2020. 

“The 6% rate means this year China will have to create an additional 6 trillion yuan in GDP,” Li said. 

“The goal refers to a flexible band of achievable growth delivery and it’s not set in stone because the pace of annual increase may turn out to be faster. We are keenly aware of the uncertainties and we favor a steady pace to avoid big swings.”

He then pivoted to hail his prudence since last year against resorting to any massive-liquidity-flooding-market monetary stimuli, when Beijing rushed to resuscitate the Covid-stricken economy.

He revealed that a modest, 2-trillion-yuan package had been swiftly rolled out a year ago with “lifeline financial support” like tax and levy waivers and the policy was designed to benefit sectors and deliver instant results in a matter of weeks to help worst-hit businesses avert bankruptcy. 

“Last year I was also asked if the stimulus package was too small, but the results speak for themselves and the economy bounced back since the third quarter.

“This year there is less need for any more stimuli when the economy has gained its footing but there are no changes to the calculus of our economic management or prudence. Indeed, there were additional supporting measures in the pipeline last year but with the turnaround materializing, some of them were never rolled out,” said Li.

At the event, Li dodged questions about the rivalry between Beijing and Washington when reporters cited the Japanese Center on Economic Research’s latest forecast that China would supplant the US as the world’s largest economy as early as 2028.

The premier merely reiterated the mantra from Xi in his February call with US President Joe Biden that disputes were normal due to differences in history and politics and dialogue would be the key to managing them.

“Both countries have the wisdom to keep up ties and have common interests to work on.”

This year’s press event was held via a video link with Li sitting in the Great Hall of the People’s empty foyer. Photo: CCTV screen grab

Face-to-face meeting next year

In a sign of the Covid times, the premier’s press conference was broadcast live via a video link from the deserted foyer of the Great Hall of the People, with Chinese and foreign correspondents housed in an offsite venue in a hotel.  

Li said he hoped next year’s event could take on the usual form of face-to-face interactions. When reporters brought up the matter of Covid, he revealed that when the World Health Organization dispatched a panel to Wuhan earlier this year for an epidemiological probe to trace the coronavirus back to a possible source, China and the WHO worked collaboratively and thrashed out the parameters for the mission.      

“The idea [of a WHO-led investigation in China] was first mooted last year with planning and talks lasting for months,” Li said.  

“The WHO has put their findings in Wuhan under the microscope and come up with fair theories about how the virus could have cropped up. China has all along been transparent and cooperative and politics must be kept out of scientific investigations.”  

Stopping short of answering if China would share with the WHO firsthand data of cases that emerged in Wuhan in the last three months of 2019, Li said China also wanted to find out the origins of Covid and that countries needed to get their acts together, not only for traceability studies but also massive vaccination programs to vanquish the disease. 

Read more about our coverage of China’s NPC and CPPCC session: