Premier Wen Jiabao opened the annual session of China's figurehead parliament on Sunday with promises of massive new social spending to placate the poor, restive countryside and said the sizzling economy will slow this year but should still grow by 8 percent.
Wen warned Taiwan, which the communist Beijing government claims as its own territory, not to pursue formal independence. The session of the National People's Congress is to focus on efforts to ease tensions over the gulf between China's rich and poor by spending more to help the countryside, home to 800 million people, and others left behind by its economic boom. "Building a 'new socialist countryside' is a major historic task," Wen said in a two-hour, nationally televised address to 2,927 NPC delegates in the heavily guarded Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.
The government has promised repeatedly to spread prosperity to the countryside. But the goal has taken on special urgency amid mounting rural anger over chronic poverty, corruption and the seizure of farmland for factories and other development projects. This year, Beijing will spend an extra 42.2 billion (US$5.2 billion; euro4.3 billion) on rural schools, hospitals, crop subsidies and other programs, raising spending on those areas by 15 percent, Wen said.
A 15,000-member security force was deployed around the hall to block protests by laid-off workers, farmers with land disputes or supporters of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Pedestrians were stopped and questioned, and at least one man was detained. A group of college students who approached a foreigner reporter, apparently hoping to practice their English, were ordered away by a policeman.
NPC delegates applauded the plans to spend more on the poor, but echoed government warnings that improving rural life will require a long, expensive effort.
"The faster the issue is resolved the etter. A harmonious, peaceful society is what we are looking for," said Liu Fengxian, a physician from the eastern province of Shandong. "It's a work in progress. It will take long-term investment. It's not a short-term project," Li Guangzhu, a lawmaker from the crowded, rural province of Hebei in the north said. The premier promised "fast, yet steady" economic development, but said growth was expected to fall to 8 percent - down from 9.9 percent last year and below a World Bank projection of 9.2 percent for 2006.
Wen didn't explain why the official target was below economists' projections. But Beijing has been trying to restrain sizzling growth in recent years, warning that a prolonged annual rate above 9 percent could ignite inflation and cause financial problems. Wen said a key government priority will be increasing domestic consumption - part of efforts to sustain growth while easing reliance on exports amid pressure by the United States and other trading partners to cut China's huge trade surpluses. The budget also calls for a sharp increase in spending on science in line with official plans to make China a world power in areas ranging from genetics and nuclear energy to medicine and computers. The premier vowed to resume dialogue with Taiwan, split from the mainland since 1949, but warned the island's democratically elected leaders against pursuing formal independence - a step that Beijing has warned could lead to war.
Beijing has no official relations with Taipei and reacted angrily this week when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian abolished an agency dedicated to unifying the island with the mainland. "We will uncompromisingly oppose secessionist activities aimed at Taiwan independence," Wen said, prompting applause from delegates.
The premier's report included no mention of political reform - a taboo topic in a system where the ruling Communist Party rejects any challenge to its monopoly on power.
The government announced Saturday that its military budget this year will rise 14.7 percent to 283.8 billion yuan (US$35.3 billion; euro28.6 billion). Total spending on the 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army is believed to be as much as several times the reported figure.
China has given its military double-digit spending increases nearly every year since 1990, causing unease among its neighbors about its military ambitions.