A smiling, waving Li Keqiang, strode onto the Central Room of Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People at 10.30 this morning. He was there to give the once year press conference granted by China’s Premier at the end of the annual National People’s Congress.
Nominally the country’s parliament, The NPC is generally referred to as “rubber stamp” because despite the show of debating and voting, all the laws it passes are first signed off by the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Li was “voted” to replace Wen Jiabao on Friday and on Saturday his four deputies (vice-Premiers) were unveiled. The most senior of these is Zhang Gaoli, the former Tianjin Party chief and now 7th ranked member of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee who will be Executive Vice Premier. The others in order (and order is always very important in the Party) are Liu Yandong, one of only two women in the Politburo; former Guangdong Party chief Wang Yang who has carved a reputation as something of a reformer; and, Ma Kai a former chairman of the powerful National Reform and Development Committee and most recently the Secretary General of the State Council which the Chinese media refers to as the country’s Cabinet, despite it being subordinate to Communist Party structures.
As the other three vice Premiers will have reached retirement age by 2017 when the next Party Standing Committee is chosen, Wang Yang now looks assured of a place in the next round of the ruling elite. Li’s term, bar any huge scandal, will be 10 years.
Li and his team face a difficult task as China’s growth model has begun to show signs of fatigue and its citizens are increasingly unhappy about rampant corruption, the yawning income gap as well as worsening pollution and environmental degradation.
The fluent English speaker who has law and economics degrees, fielded questions from the hundreds of local and foreign media who crammed the room, with well practiced lines but did give some insights to the direction of a government that continues to promise reform both economically and of China government structures themselves.
As Li himself put it bluntly “no matter how deep the water, we must wade into it. There is no choice. The country’s future depends on it.”
He certainly sounded like a true reformer when he promised budget and government austerity, no new government buildings and a reduction in government employees.
He added that spending on social services would continue to rise will government entertainment would be cut.
Beijing’s pollution was also acknowledged: Li said he was ‘disappointed’ by the air in the capital –which is choking and foul again today – and put environmental issues high on his agenda.
Li said: “It’s no good to be poor in a beautiful environment, nor any good to be well-off and live with environmental degradation.”
Li’s comments overall echoed the first speech made by his boss Xi Jinping, as Presisdent. Xi is now officially head of the government to go with his positions of Communist Party Secretary General – the real source of his power – and Chairman of the Central Military Commission which controls the People’s Liberation Army, at 2.3 million members the worlds’ largest standing armed forces.
Only and hour earlier Xi had repeated his themes of the restoration of China’s greatness, a clamp down on corruption and excess and a better life for ordinary Chinese people as he officially closed the 12 day NPC.
He called for “arduous efforts for the continued realisation of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation and the Chinese dream” and repeated recent urging to the country’s military to ready themselves.
“In face of the mighty trend of the times and earnest expectations of the people for a better life, we cannot have the slightest complacency, or get the slightest slack at work,” Xi told almost 3,000 delegates.
“We must resolutely reject formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance, and resolutely fight against corruption and other misconduct in all manifestations.
(It’s also worth noting that the New York Times, which last year published the story on the wealth accumulated by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s family that so angered the Party was not invited to Li’s press conference.)
But now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road and as Li rather disarmingly said: it is all about “walking the walk” and not “talking the talk”. He and Xi have some mighty vested interests to cut through so we shall watch, as they say, with interest.