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Domestic Issues Paramount for China's New Premier

China's newly-elected Premier Li Keqiang gestures during his news conference in Beijing, March 17, 2013.
China's new premier, Li Keqiang, spoke with reporters Sunday, revealing the government's agenda for the next five years. His comments followed China's once-in-a-decade transition of power.

In a debut news conference in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang answered questions on a range of issues. A decade after China’s previous leadership promised reforms in health care, education, and income disparity, Li vowed to push through the changes needed to stem rising discontent among China’s lower classes.

He said that in pursuing reform China must now navigate uncharted waters and confront protracted problems so as to shake up vested interests. Premier Li said stirring vested interests may be more difficult than stirring the soul, but however deep the water may be, China will wade into it.

Li said maintaining China’s economic growth will be one of the government’s top priorities and he set a GDP growth target of 7.5 percent for this year. He stressed that urbanization will become a driving force of China’s economy, with hundreds of millions of people expected to move from the countryside to China’s cities.

To accommodate the new urban residents, Li said China will improve the country’s social safety net, public housing, health insurance and pension systems.

He said if the Chinese people experience more difficulties in their lives, that may disrupt the moral and psychological baseline of society. He added that China must protect people’s rights and dignity.

China’s government has consolidated several government ministries and Li pledged to further slash government spending and bureaucracy, issuing a ban on construction of new government buildings and announcing reduced expenditures on hospitality, junkets and government cars.

With Beijing’s air quality index approaching extremely hazardous levels of pollution, Li’s statements on the environment were the highest-level public comments on pollution to date.

Premier Li said China should not pursue economic growth at the expense of the environment. He said the extent of pollution, information on food safety and clean-up efforts should be made public so the media and the people would be able to track the government’s efforts more effectively.

Li also spoke of the importance of improved ties with the United States, denying accusations of cyber attacks.

But China’s domestic challenges dominated the news conference. Li acknowledged the challenge of curbing state power, which he called essential to expanding China’s middle class and maintaining the country’s rapid economic growth.