China annual legislature session to face familiar problems

BEIJING - China's annual show of political theatre, the National People's Congress, opens this week - the first under a new Communist Party leadership facing intractable problems including endemic corruption, slowing economic growth and tensions with neighbouring countries.

The rubber-stamp NPC, which begins Wednesday at the imposing Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, serves as a show of unity in the nation and the ruling party.

The event kicks off amid much fanfare, with colourfully-clad delegates from China's dozens of ethnic minorities and military officers in dress uniform arriving at the hall, with the occasional movie star and billionaire at associated meetings adding a dash of glamour.

A centrepiece will be the presentation of various "work reports", the most important of which will be read by Premier Li Keqiang, his first since taking the position at last year's event.

The event will be closely watched for China's annual economic growth target - which was given at 7.5 per cent for last year - a figure analysts follow for insight into the leadership's thinking about the economy and how they expect it to perform.

The announcement of China's annual official defence budget will also be prominent. Last year, Li's predecessor Wen Jiabao said the figure would increase 10.7 per cent to 720.2 billion yuan (S$148 billion).

Other topics likely to be mentioned in the report are an ongoing and high-profile crackdown on official corruption, China's multiple environmental problems including hazardous smog regularly enveloping major cities, economic reforms, and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Those problems were all mentioned in some fashion at last year's meeting.

"And they will still be here next year," Steve Tsang, an expert in Chinese politics at Britain's University of Nottingham, told AFP.

"All of those major issues will take much longer than a year or two to fix," he said, adding that China's leadership was likely to use the NPC to play up progress made, most notably in the corruption crackdown.

"The curbing of corruption means the capacity of the party to function is stronger," he said. "Corruption weakens party discipline."

Last year's NPC set the seal on China's once-a-decade leadership transition, which saw Xi Jinping, who had become party secretary general the previous November, take the helm as state president as well. Li replaced Wen as premier to become China's No. 2 top official.

The NPC comes after a major Communist Party meeting known as the Third Plenum in November, at which significant reforms including the abolition of China's education-through-labour camps and modifications to the decades-old one-child policy were announced.

Economic reforms were also flagged, including allowing the market to play a "decisive" role in the economy.

"This will be the first NPC plenary meeting run by the new leaders, thus an important venue for them to communicate how they plan to strike the right balance between short-term growth and long-term structural changes," Societe Generale economist Yao Wei wrote in a research note.

Yao expects one change at the meeting to be that rather than sticking to last year's economic growth target of 7.5 per cent, a range of 7-7.5 per cent will be announced as "policymakers may downplay the emphasis on growth".

China's leadership says it wants to transform the country's economic growth model away from an over-reliance on often wasteful investment and instead make private demand the driver for the country's future development, which they expect to result in slower but more sustainable rates of expansion.