Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, shakes hands with Chinese Vice Premier… (Feng Li / Getty Images )
BEIJING -- With three humble bows to the audience, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao exited the public stage in an anticlimactic end to his ten-year reign.
In his final work report at the opening of the National People's Congress, nary a word was spoken about political reform, which Wen had championed in earlier speeches. Instead, he read a 100-minute statement that was dull even by the standards of the country’s soporific political theater.
Both Wen and Hu Jintao, the president, will step down by the end of the 12-day session to make way for a new leadership headed by Xi Jinping, already secretary of the Communist Party, and incoming premier Li Keqiang.
"The delegates applauded politely, but there was a clear lack of enthusiasm,"’ said Willy Lam, a scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
A decade ago, when Hu and Wen stepped into power to confront a crisis over the previous government's coverup of the SARS epidemic, the consensus was they were ushering in a more accountable government than that of conservative Jiang Zemin.
"People are disappointed that Hu and Wen didn't live up to expectations," Lam said.
As was widely predicted, China set an economic growth target of 7.5% for the coming year, a notch below 2012's 7.8%. The modest (by China's standards) projection is in keeping with policies to improve overall living standards and social services, rather than chalking up large growth numbers.
"We must make ensuring and improving people's well-being the starting point and goal of all the government's work, give entire priority to it, and strive to strengthen social development," Wen said.
Another widely anticipated statistic released Tuesday was an increase in the defense budget, which was projected to be up 10.7% this year, higher than the overall growth in the government budget but lower than last year’s 11.2%.
The People's Congress, China’s equivalent of a legislature, is a somewhat lesser event than the 18th Party Congress, which took place in November, reflecting the subordinate role of the state to the Communist Party in the Chinese political system. In keeping with time-honored Soviet-style choreography, the premier traditionally gives the opening speech, with the president largely absent from the proceedings.
Often referred to as "Grandpa Wen," the 70-year-old premier had embodied the hopes of China's pro-democracy camp. A year ago, at the conclusion of the People's Congress, he made the bold pronouncement that "without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic reform."
However, not only were calls for political reform conspicuously absent from Tuesday's speech, but Wen glossed over another topic he had championed -- leveling the economic playing field to allow private business to compete with state-owned enterprises. He gave only perfunctory mention of the fight against corruption within the party.
Wen's standing within the party was badly damaged by a report in the New York Times last year that said his family controlled assets worth $2.7 billion.
"He doesn't have the power now to dare mention anything like political reform,"’ said Jin Zhong, editor of a Hong Kong-based political magazine.
Hu's clout also has rapidly ebbed since the Party Congress in November. Contrary to the tradition of outgoing leaders clinging to power, he relinquished his command of the military at that time, clearing the way for Xi to rule unencumbered by a meddlesome predecessor.
Political analysts expect, however, that some of Hu's loyalists, including former chief of staff Ling Jihua, who was damaged in a scandal in connection with his son’s death in a Ferrari crash last year, will be rewarded with key positions.
Xi, 59, appears to be already firmly in control of the Chinese government. In his early months since becoming party secretary, he too has disappointed liberals by speaking up against political reforms that he blames for the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has also stressed China’s "core interests" in its territorial claims against its neighbors.
"He is stoking the fire of nationalism and quoting Mao Tse-tung. It is more of the same," Lam said.
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