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National People's Congress Opens, Prepares For Leadership Change


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. As he prepares to step down, China's prime minister today delivered his version of a state of the union address. He got a big boost in military funding, one that outpaces expected economic growth.

NPR's Louisa Lim has been gauging the mood of China's new leaders, both inside and outside of the Great Hall of the People.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: In China's political calendar, this highly-scripted meeting of the rubber-stamp parliament is what counts as a highlight. Today was the political swansong of Premier Wen Jiabao.

PREMIER WEN JIABO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: His work report stretched to 28 pages. This year, China is aiming to grow its economy by 7.5 percent. But its military spending will increase by 10.7 percent. This comes at a time when China is engaged in territorial disputes with several of its neighbors. Wen says the armed forces need to be modernized more quickly.

JIABO: (Through translator) We should resolutely uphold China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and ensure its peaceful development.

LIM: As usual, details are hard to come by.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)


LIM: I'm trying to talk to man in military uniform. I wanted to ask him about the 10.7 percent rise in military spending. And he literally started running up the stairs, shouting behind him, I haven't read the report yet. We've got experts who can talk about that. Oh well.


LIM: The new leadership has been courting the military, especially incoming President Xi Jinping, seen on the TV news dining with sailors in their canteen. One of his favorite topics is the Great Revival of the Chinese Nation, or as he also calls it, the China Dream. It's clear that this is one of the new talking points.

Huang Ribo, who's on the advisory body, brought it up without any prompting.

HUANG RIO: (Through translator) The China Dream is to recover our confidence which existed 500 years. Five hundred years ago, China made up 27 percent of the world's GDP. Historically, China was a great nation. Now China is returning to its historical position. The world should greet China's rise peacefully.

LIM: Xi Jinping is already head of the military. He'll take over as state president at the end of the meeting. He's widely seen to be a different kind of leader; more charismatic, more self-confident, perhaps more nationalistic. That may be calculated to win appeal at home, according to Chris Johnson at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

CHRIS JOHNSON: There's a recognition on Xi Jinping's part that the Great Revival of the Chinese Nation, or the China Dream, is a lot more resonant with the public than the scientific concept of development. What's interesting about Xi Jinping is, in the United States context they would say he's a very skilled retail politician.

LIM: China's new leader may have populist flair. But he could find himself hobbled by his own party. His new leadership had wanted to drastically restructure the government. But no concrete details were mentioned in today's speech. Now press reports are hinting at a very limited plan.

Deputy Eric Yeung says opposition from vested interests is a major issue, especially in the battle against corruption.

ERIC YEUNG: I know it's going to be a slow process. There will be a lot of rebound, a lot of factions trying to protect their vested interests. But in the long run, the will of the people will prevail.


LIM: As the leaders - both old and new - file offstage, there's no doubt they're facing a tough job. Today's speech covered a long list of issues: the widening wealth gap, worsening pollution and a marked increase in social problems. Online, some even suggest that the military budget would be better spent improving livelihoods. Expectations have been raised that real steps will be taken; otherwise China's leaders could find the will of the people turning against them.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.