BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leaders set a robust annual economic growth target and ambitious high-tech development goals Monday at a legislative session overshadowed by proposed constitutional changes to allow President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.
The target of “around 6.5 percent,” announced by Premier Li Keqiang to the National People’s Congress, is down slightly from 2017 but would be among the world’s strongest if achieved. It comes amid a marathon campaign to nurture self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumption instead of trade and investment and to rein in surging debt that prompted ratings agencies to cut Beijing’s government credit rating last year.
This year’s NPC session, usually used to showcase economic plans, has been overshadowed by Xi’s effort to allow himself stay in power indefinitely by removing presidential term limits from China’s constitution. That has prompted concern China’s sliding toward one-man rule will erode efforts to make government and economic regulation more stable and predictable.
Private sector analysts have questioned whether the ruling Communist Party can achieve such high growth without infusions of bank lending and government spending, which would set back its reforms. The target officially is a basis for planning instead of a promise about how the economy will perform, but allowing growth to dip below the target could erode public confidence.
“GDP growth of around 6.5 percent will allow us to achieve relatively full employment,” said Li, the country’s top economic official, in a speech to nearly 3,000 NPC delegates to the ceremonial legislature in the Great Hall of the People.
Last year’s growth target was “6.5 percent or higher.” Real growth came in at 6.9 percent but that was supported by a boom in bank lending and real estate sales that regulators are trying to rein in amid concern about debt that has soared to 270 percent of economic output.
The two-week NPC session usually does little lawmaking work. Instead, the ruling party uses the meeting to showcase its plans and new initiatives.
The legislature is due to endorse a proposed constitutional amendment already approved by the ruling party to lift the two-term limit for president and vice president. The measure is sure to pass but critics could register their opposition by abstaining from the vote.
The president’s office has almost no official duties but Xi’s posts as ruling party general secretary and chairman of the party commission that controls China’s military already have no term limit. By tradition since the early 1990s, one person has held all three posts at the same time.
Li’s report also promised to push ahead with an overhaul of state industry including the restructuring or bankruptcy of “zombie enterprises,” or money-losing companies that are kept afloat by loans from government banks.
Xi, 64, has steadily amassed authority since being appointed party leader in 2012, reversing a two-decade-old tradition of sharing power with other members of a ruling inner circle.
He has appointed himself to head bodies that oversee national security, finance, economic reform and other major initiatives, effectively sidelining the party’s No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.
The constitutional amendment would upend a system enacted by former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
On Sunday, the legislature’s spokesman, Zhang Yesui, told reporters the move is only aimed at bringing the office of the president in line with Xi’s other positions.
“It is conducive to upholding the authority of the Central Committee of the party with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core and also to unified leadership,” Zhang said.
Already, the blanket and entirely positive coverage of Xi in official propaganda has drawn comparisons of a cult of personality to rival Mao’s.
State TV broadcasts near-daily segments featuring anyone from factory workers and farmers to space engineers and soldiers applauding Xi for several minutes. His airbrushed, blemish- and nearly-wrinkle-free face often dominates the front pages of state newspapers.