China's legislature opens; leadership shift on agenda
Wednesday, March 5, 2003
BEIJING -- China convened a landmark session of its largely toothless legislature Wednesday, preparing to anoint a new generation of leaders who will shepherd Asia's fastest-growing economy through fundamental economic and social change.
At the top of the agenda was the virtually certain ascension of Hu Jintao, the Communist Party's newly installed general secretary, to the presidency now held by Jiang Zemin. It will be the final phase of what is considered the first orderly transfer of authority since the communists took China in 1949.
The leadership walked into the Great Hall of the People in single file, led by Jiang. Wu Bangguo, a top Communist Party official expected to be the legislature's next leader, opened the meeting and a military band played China's national anthem.
Premier Zhu Rongji, in an address on the state of the nation that was to open the session, identified the struggle against poverty as China's top priority for the coming year.
"We should do everything possible to increase farmers' income and lighten their burden," Zhu said, according to a copy of his 55-page report that was obtained in advance.
He said the country was aiming for 7 percent economic growth in 2003. That figure is the minimum that China has said it needs to achieve for continued stability.
"This growth rate is both necessary and achievable through hard work," Zhu said, according to the transcript. He also said the country needed to raise revenue and cut spending.
For the congress and its companion advisory body, thousands of delegates streamed in from China's farthest reaches -- 2,985 of them for the congress itself -- to bring their regional concerns to the central government's attention.
Authorities sealed off Tiananmen Square to foot traffic and tightened security across central Beijing for the meeting of the legislature, the National People's Congress, which is officially independent but actually takes marching orders from the ruling Communist Party.
The government-run China Central Television carried the opening live, making it available to hundreds of millions of people across the country.
As delegates came together, the elder generation of top officials headed by Jiang began official farewells after orchestrating more than a decade of continuing economic reforms and stringent Communist Party control.
"My mission is over," Li Peng, the head of the legislature and one of modern China's most notorious figures, said Tuesday. As premier, in 1989, he ordered troops to crush massive pro-democracy protests under way in the very square where the legislature opened.
Years in the making, the generational shift in China's top leadership is already all but inscribed.
Appointments made at the Communist Party's congress in November -- including Hu Jintao at the top -- will translate into equivalent government posts. Hu, now vice president, is considered certain to succeed Jiang as president. A new premier will replace Zhu -- probably high-ranking party official Wen Jiabao, Zhu's protege, who is now vice premier.
The leadership transition -- bookended by the party congress and now the people's congress -- is considered the first truly orderly transfer of power within China's government since the 1949 communist revolution.
"In the past, you always had a situation where there was a lot of gray in the political transition," said Lawrence Brahm, author of "Zhu Rongji and the Transformation of Modern China."
"Now," he said, "you really are having a situation where you have had a complete transition over to the fourth generation of leaders, who are unprecedentedly young in the Chinese body politic."
Jiang Enzhu, the congress' spokesman, said the core of the legislative leadership to be named in coming days will be younger, better educated and more professional -- reflecting China's image of itself at the beginning of the 21st century as it expands its experiment in capitalism.
But every top-level government leader taking office this month is an inner-sanctum party man.
Party and government face the same mammoth issues challenging China as it pushes away from a planned economy and plunges into capitalism -- a system it calls its "socialist market economy."
Dealing with the negative fallout of that shift -- including growing unemployment, worker discontent, continuing corruption and fears of spreading social unrest -- is a particularly crucial topic at this year's meeting of the congress.
"Our goal is very clear: We must raise the living standards of all the people of China," the congressional spokesman, Jiang, said at a news conference Wednesday.