China pledges modest economic growth of about 5% in 2023


China pledged to expand its economy by “around 5 percent” this year, a modest goal that underlines the challenges confronting Chinese President Xi Jinping in his third term, as he tries to overcome increasingly hostile relations with the West that have hurt an already struggling economy.

China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, opened in Beijing on Sunday with a report delivered by outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, who sought to shore up confidence in the Chinese leadership.

Describing the “turbulent international environment,” “uncertainties” and “hidden risks” facing his country as it reemerges from years of isolating and paralyzing coronavirus measures, Li praised Xi’s leadership.

“Struggle creates brilliance. Hard work wins the future,” Li said in a wide-ranging speech that lasted less than an hour and promised to expand the country’s ability to counter outside attempts to contain its development.

This year’s Lianghui, or the Two Sessions — the dual meetings of an advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress with about 3,000 members representing different sectors of society — comes at a time of deep uncertainty and change for the country.

The National People’s Congress is expected to rubber-stamp senior appointments and a government overhaul that will give Xi and the ruling Communist Party even more control over decision-making previously delegated to government bodies.

Chinese leader Xi embarks on ‘intensive’ overhaul as he cements power

At a party congress in October, Xi broke with succession norms to secure a third five-year term, paving the way for him to stay in power for decades. Late last year, the Chinese leadership under Xi oversaw a chaotic reversal of its years-long “zero covid” policy, as well as mass protests on a level not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy movement that ended in a bloody crackdown around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

In February, a high-altitude Chinese balloon discovered floating over the United States caused Washington to cancel a scheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which was meant to put a floor on spiraling U.S.-China ties. Through export restrictions and sanctions, Washington has curbed China’s access to technology related to semiconductors and artificial intelligence.

Beijing also continues to face scrutiny over its friendship with Russia and reticence to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, amid allegations from Washington that Beijing is considering helping Moscow’s war effort.

In a nod to criticism of its foreign policy, Li said his country would “resolutely pursue an independent foreign policy of peace.” Without referring to the U.S. restrictions, Li said China successfully countered “external attempts” to contain China’s development and would focus on building “self reliance” in science and technology in its bid to become a global tech power.

Li covered familiar terrain in the work report, reiterating China’s claims over the self-ruled democracy of Taiwan and the need to improve the military readiness of the People’s Liberation Army. A budget released Sunday said that defense spending would increase 7.2 percent to 1.56 trillion yuan ($230 billion), in line with the increases over the past two years.

At the Two Sessions, officials will announce the government’s largest leadership reshuffle in a decade, including a new economic team that will have to grapple with a continued property crisis, rising unemployment, an aging population and a declining consumer and investor confidence. China’s economy grew only 3 percent last year, missing its target of 5.5 percent.

Officials are expected to approve a “reform plan” of party and state institutions that will give the party more control over target-critical areas such as technology, financial regulation and national security, a key focus of Xi’s.

New appointments will include China’s new premier, Li Qiang — an ally of Xi’s and the former party secretary of Shanghai, who oversaw a chaotic lockdown over the city that shifted national public opinion over the zero-covid policy.

In his speech on Sunday, Li Keqiang, the outgoing premier who has been sidelined by Xi for most of his tenure, made no reference to the sudden abandonment of the policy. Li said only that, going forward, the country’s coronavirus measures should be more “scientific” and “targeted.”

The parliament on Sunday also proposed amendments to a lawmaking procedure during an emergency that would allow its decision-making standing committee to skip multiple rounds of discussion before passing legislation. The proposal is almost certain to be passed, potentially allowing a small group of top lawmakers to ram through controversial legislation with minimal oversight or feedback from the public.

Vic Chiang and Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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