Ending term limits tops agenda as China's legislature opens

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Monday, March 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese lawmakers prepared for changes to allow President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely as the country's top economic official on Monday announced a robust annual growth target, high-tech development goals and a boost in military spending.

The plan to end limits on Xi's term as president has overshadowed the meeting of the National People's Congress, which usually is used to showcase economic initiatives and plans for social programs and other government work.

The slide toward one-man rule under Xi, already China's most dominant figure of recent decades, has fueled concern Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership and make economic regulation more stable and predictable.

Legislators also are due to endorse the appointment of economic and other officials picked by the ruling Communist Party. That is widely expected to include the promotion of Xi's top economic adviser to a post overseeing reform.

Chinese officials have defended the end of Xi's term limits as necessary to ensure continuity as Beijing undertakes a sprawling long-range agenda aimed at making state industry competitive and productive, developing profitable high-tech industry, reducing poverty and cleaning up China's battered environment.

Xi 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.

The 64-year-old leader has appointed himself to head bodies that oversee national security, finance, economic reform and other functions, effectively sidelining the party's No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.

The president's office has few powers but Xi's posts as ruling party general secretary and chairman of the commission that controls the party's military wing, the People's Liberation Army, already have no term limit. By tradition since the early 1990s, one person has held all three posts at the same time.

"If it gets approved, you can describe his attempt to abolish term limits as really to make China medieval again, not to make China great again," said Warren Sun, a historian of the Chinese Communist Party at Australia's Monash University.

Foreign governments, already wary of China's expanding influence abroad, are closely watching shifts toward greater authoritarianism.

Chinese investments abroad in technology and banking are under closer scrutiny while foreign companies and governments complain Beijing hampers access to its markets in violation of its free-trade commitments. Xi's ambitious "Belt and Road" initiative to link up Asia and Europe by building roads, ports and other infrastructure has raised concerns about Beijing's strategic ambitions and debt burdens for host countries.

In a speech to the legislature, the premier set this year's growth target at "around 6.5 percent." That 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.

"GDP growth of around 6.5 percent will allow us to achieve relatively full employment," said Li in a speech to nearly 3,000 delegates to the ceremonial legislature in the Great Hall of the People.

Private sector analysts have questioned whether Beijing can achieve such strong growth without infusions of bank lending and government spending, which would set back its reforms.

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.

Li promised progress on an array of politically challenging plans including the restructuring or bankruptcy of "zombie enterprises," or money-losing by politically favored companies that are kept afloat by loans from government banks.

The premier said Beijing will speed up state-led development in an array of technology fields including integrated circuits, mobile communications, aircraft engines and electric cars.

China's military spending, already the world's second-highest behind the United States, is due to rise 8 percent to 1.1 trillion yuan ($173 billion) as Beijing prepares to launch its second aircraft carrier and develop stealth fighters and advanced missiles, according to Li's report.