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China: NPC Opens with Sweeping Leadership Transition - 2003-03-05


China's parliament, the National People's Congress, has opened, with a sweeping leadership transition topping the agenda. In his farewell address to the government, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has urged legislators to make poverty and unemployment relief their highest priorities.

At the opening of the National People's Congress Wednesday, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji somberly warned that social unrest could threaten stability if delegates do not relieve the burdens of the poor and unemployed.

In his final report to the congress, Mr. Zhu calls on delegates to raise the incomes of 800 million impoverished farmers and reform China's burdensome rural tax system. He urges lawmakers to create new jobs for tens of millions of people thrown out of work by the closure of unprofitable state-owned enterprises.

Mr. Zhu says experimental social security programs in China's industrial northeast should be expanded nationwide, to help those who cannot find work. And he pushes lawmakers to take seriously people's complaints about official corruption, which erodes confidence in the government. The prime minister also stressed that China's free market reforms must continue, along with the painful but necessary restructuring of the state sector.

Mr. Zhu says the economy should aim for at least seven percent growth this year, in part by continuing its policy of pumping money into infrastructure projects. He pledges to follow through with the country's commitments as a new member of the World Trade Organization and to open China's industries further to foreign competition.

Mr. Zhu also says China will seek dialogue and direct trade links with rival Taiwan as soon as possible. China claims the island as its own territory, and has vowed to reclaim it by force if necessary.

The National People's Congress will mark the official retirement of China's top leaders - including President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, and parliament chief, Li Peng.

At the end of the two-week session of parliament, Vice President Hu Jintao is expected to become China's new president. Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is likely to be the new Prime Minister. This leadership transition is considered the most orderly transfer of power since Communist rule began in 1949.

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