China's new premier holds first press conference

China's newly-elected Premier Li Keqiang speaks to the media during the National People's Congress. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Li Keqiang is a professor of economics and now in charge of the world's second largest economy. Using current growth projections Premier Li may well steer China as it overtakes the US to become the world's No. 1 economy, and that historic step could well happen within his expected ten year term.

The new premier is thought to be an economic reformer. Western diplomats expect him to expand the opening up of the Chinese economy that over the last 30 years has brought great wealth to this developing country.

Asked what his top priorities will be, he replied that the highest aim was "to maintain sustainable economic growth ... we need to register an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent". He added that this would be difficult but that China has huge domestic potential. China's middle class is around 300 million strong and growing.

"We need to raise incomes", he went on, and create a "social safety net and protect the people's needs".

He acknowledged the weak links in society, the widening inequality which is at a "dangerous" level according to the UN measure.

Li Keqiang speaks at his first press conference as China's premier. Credit: ITV News/Angus Walker

"We will be true to the constitution and loyal to the people" - that's a nod towards the issue of human rights, which on paper the Chinese constitution sets out. In reality, people can be locked up for complaining about the government as we have seen in my reports on China's "Black Jails".

"We will promote social fairness" he promised, and that's something which many people believe does not exist in China. There's a generally-held view that only those with party connections can succeed.

"Under the guidance of the rule of law we intend to build a modern society" - rule of law is a real problem, despite what central government tries to do or say, local governments often operate as private empires of local politicians.

He was asked about corruption, for many in China a source of frustration and anger. It's not hard to find people who have to pay the doctor for better treatment or slip the headteacher an envelope of cash to get their child a place in a school. It's an everyday annoyance for millions of people at the lowest level and involves huge sums of money at the top.

Premier Li had a message for corrupt colleagues, "Clean government should start with oneself ... since we have chosen public service we should give up hopes of making money".

The problem is that the outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming President Xi Jinping have both been the subject of investigations by Bloomberg and The New York Times which made detailed allegations suggesting that the families of the leaders had become millionaires thanks to their relation's positions.

China's Premier Li Keqiang (L) and President Xi Jinping. Credit: REUTERS/China Daily (

Bloomberg and The New York Times have been targeted by hacking attacks since those reports which the media companies claim came from China.

Li Keqiang seems to be setting out a new period of self-imposed austerity for his government. He promised government cuts, that's not what you hear very often from Chinese leaders.

He said central government's fiscal growth only grew by less than two percent in the early months of this year. So, he added, within the term of his government there will be no construction of fancy buildings like state guest houses, fewer official cars will be bought and there won't be so many overseas trips.

He was asked how he will deal with the US given the increasing focus on Asia Pacific security by the White House and what he would do about hacking attacks blamed on China which the US claims are "state sponsored".

Li Keqiang has been travelling to the USA since the 1980's and although he acknowledged there had been "ups and downs" in the bilateral relationship, on the whole relations are strong and continue to be because that strength benefits people in both countries.

On hacking, Li repeated the standard Party line that China is a victim of hacking and does not authorise hacking. Detailed evidence from a US security company published last month would suggest that the Chinese army is involved in hacking, with a specific unit tasked to carry out computer espionage against companies.

In his state of the union speech, President Barack Obama claimed that hackers are attempting to break into energy infrastructure and even air traffic control.

Premier Li said he was 'quite upset' by the 'hazy weather'. Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Asked what his government can do about China's notorious levels of pollution Premier Li replied that he and his colleagues will "do our best". He added that he had seen what he called the "hazy weather and like every one of you I was quite upset by that ". He promised "vigorous efforts to clean up pollution".

Li Keqiang seems more energetic in his approach, taking more questions than I have seen in previous press conferences with China's leaders and he speaks at a faster pace. His predecessor Wen Jiabao would sometimes take 15 minutes to answer one question.

He set out his aims, all seem desirable and appear to address the real problems facing hundreds of millions of Chinese people. Especially the poor. However, critics will see these as the same high hopes that his predecessors also promised ten years ago.

The question must be, can these changes be achieved if the rigid Chinese communist system of government doesn't change as well?