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Wen's address to China's National People's Congress offers few surprises

BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did not appear to make any big political waves Monday with his opening address to the nation's annual congress, sticking to familiar refrains of balancing the economy, improving government management and trying to ensure social stability.

In a period of unpredictable global markets, Wen said the nation's economic growth goal in 2012 would be 7.5 percent, instead of the longstanding 8 percent. The figure fits into national plans for an average 7 percent annual jump from 2011 to 2015 — below the double-digit gross domestic product leaps of past decades, but still far ahead of other top economies.

In previous years, actual growth in the world's second-largest economy has exceeded such projections.

The lack of any sudden, bold initiatives came as little surprise as Beijing seeks to tightly manage a leadership transition later this year, when seven of nine seats on the ruling politburo standing committee are expected to turn over. While the top two slots are thought to be locked in, there's reportedly a fierce tug between different factions for the remaining positions.

"This was a briefer speech, and one reflecting the narrow consensus on a number of issues that seems to be prevailing at the present time," Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based expert on Chinese politics, said in an e-mail exchange.

"The Chinese leadership sees the challenges clearly, but there are differences within the hierarchy about what to prioritize," he said. "Discussions about what sort of political restructuring is needed are especially contentious currently."

The state-run Xinhua newswire reflected the mood of things in an article at the beginning of the month titled, "Stability a buzzword for upcoming sessions."

"In a year of political transition, expectations for explosive news and reviews coming out of China's annual political season will, possibly, prove unfounded," the Xinhua article said.

One contender for the politburo standing committee, Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, was seen to have lost his footing last month when a longtime ally, the city's former police chief, reportedly stayed the night at a U.S. consulate. Rumors swirled that the ex-chief, Wang Lijun, had sought asylum and, in the process, handed over damaging information about Bo.

Bo was in attendance Monday at the National People's Congress. He blended in with a sea of dark suits among some 3,000 delegates at the meeting, which is in large part a carefully scripted pageant of authoritarian politics.

During his speech, Wen, 69, echoed a refrain heard for many years from Chinese leadership about the need to shift the nation toward domestic consumption that would presumably encourage the growth of the middle class. In addition, he called for a push toward urbanization and cleaner, high-tech industries — again, a familiar policy list. "Expanding domestic demand, particularly consumer demand, which is essential to ensuring China's long-term, steady and robust economic development, is the focus of our economic work this year," Wen said during his nearly two-hour talk, which ran short compared to previous years.

Later in the speech, which is akin to a State of the Union address, he added that "solving the problems of imbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development is both a long-term task and our most pressing task at present."

Wen, in his last year in office, also repeated the sort of reformist sentiment with which he's been long associated. He spoke of a need to "continue to promote all reforms, including the reform of China's economic and political systems, with greater resolve and courage."

Critics of the regime in Beijing often assert that under Wen and President Hu Jintao, the Chinese Communist Party has grown more repressive at home and aggressive abroad.

The day before Wen's speech, it was announced that China's official military budget would grow by 11.2 percent to 670 billion yuan, putting it over $100 billion for the first time. The Chinese press has emphasized that the increase is smaller than last year's 12.7 percent. Many foreign defense experts, however, say actual spending on armed forces is far higher than what Beijing reports.

"We will enhance the armed forces' capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local wars under information-age conditions," Wen said Monday.

"We will strengthen their ideological and political standards, and adhere to the fundamental principle of the party having absolute leadership over the armed forces," he said.


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