China opens congress that tests new Xi leadership
BEIJING (AP) -- Newly installed Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces an early test of his pledges to curb corruption, raise living standards and create a fairer society when China's national legislature opens Tuesday to appoint top government posts and approve policies.
The annual session of the National People's Congress comes as the government has shifted more resources to provide social benefits to an increasingly demanding public that is empowered by the Internet and tired of the waste and extravagance of the governing Communist elite.
An indication of the Xi leadership's priorities and how it is doing in consolidating power after three months in office will come with the opening policy address to the congress. Though given by Premier Wen Jiabao, who is retiring after a decade in office, the address and an accompanying budget are consensus documents approved by Xi and others in the collective leadership.
Among the crucial figures are outlays for defense and domestic security -- both of which have seen double-digit percentage increases in recent years.
The legislature's spokeswoman defended booming military spending Monday, saying the vast investment has contributed to global peace and stability, though she did not announce the coming year's percentage increase, as usually has been done on the eve of the legislature's opening.
With China now the world's No. 2 military spender after the U.S., the amount of this year's increase will be a barometer of the complicated relationship between Xi and the politically influential military. A big boost would show Xi wants robust backing for the People's Liberation Army at a time when China has tense territorial disputes with neighbors and wants to reduce U.S. influence in the region. A smaller increase would show that Xi feels he already has strong military support without the need to pander to its recent demands for ever-larger outlays.
Growth in the military budget should match or exceed last year's rate, if only to keep up with rising inflation, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Tensions with Japan and others, he said, should ensure a bigger voice for the military.
"The more serious the situation becomes, the higher status the military will enjoy and that includes military, social and political status," Ni said.
Put in power in November after political scandals further tarnished the Communist Party leadership's battered public image, Xi impressed ordinary Chinese with plain talk about fighting corruption, closing a wealth gap, improving social justice and addressing quality-of-life issues like the environment. That honeymoon is waning, as the public looks for concrete policies to match the rhetoric.
"Whether it has been `harmonious society' or `beautiful China,' those are really sort of idealistic goals they have held up, the kind of life that Xi Jinping has articulated," said Dali Yang, a China politics expert at the University of Chicago. "The challenge now is that everywhere people look, China is far from harmonious, or beautiful for that matter."
During its 13-day session, the legislature, most of whose nearly 3,000 deputies are party members, will approve appointments to top government posts and ministries, completing the once-a-decade leadership transition begun in November with the elevation of Xi and others in the Communist Party's Politburo. The congress will approve a proposed streamlining of government ministries, and give Xi the largely ceremonial title of president. In reality, the decisions have already been made by Xi and party power-brokers behind closed doors.
The outcomes provide a measure of how Xi has fared in the divisive back-room negotiations, whether he has been able to install allies in crucial posts and gain endorsement for some of his signature policies.
Beyond the politics, the party faces a legitimacy crisis among the public. Many Chinese see business, society and politics as dominated by a party-connected elite and wonder if Xi, as the son of a revolutionary veteran, has the political will to take on entrenched interests. The disaffected include the middle class, which has risen out of the successful market reforms for the past decades and has tended to support the party.
There's a "perception that there's a so-called new aristocracy," said Willy Lam, a China politics watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "There's a sense that the economic tide is being monopolized by people with political connections, even amongst the college educated and the professionals."
With the party's reputation damaged and communism and the revolution now seen as abandoned ideals, meeting public expectations will be all the more important for Xi and Li Keqiang, the next premier. "Both Xi and Li do not have national stature, so they really have to justify their leadership position by performance," Lam said.
The military, with its deep roots in the communist revolution and its large delegation to the congress, is a key constituency, and Xi is seen by analysts as having a stronger hand to play than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. The 59-year-old Xi is the son of a famed revolutionary general, and he served briefly in uniform as aide-de-camp to the defense minister three decades ago.
Hu stepped aside in November, not only from the party leadership but also from its Central Military Commission, in favor of Xi, who immediately moved to court the People's Liberation Army. He has conspicuously visited naval, air force and infantry bases and met with the commanders of the nuclear missile command.
"Clearly he has a very solid grip on the PLA," said Warren Sun, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Australia's Monash University.
Chinese defense spending has grown substantially each year for more than two decades, and last year rose 11.2 percent to 670.2 billion yuan ($106.4 billion), an increase of about 67 billion yuan. Only the United States spends more on defense. Its military budget last year was estimated from $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion.