China's outgoing premier has kicked off the annual Congress by praising the country's economic growth and promising reform. The speech sets the tone for the leadership handover which occurs only once a decade.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao addressed the estimated 3,000 delegates who had convened in Beijing on Tuesday for the beginning of the National People's Congress, a ceremonial meeting of the legislature to give final approval to major governmental changes.
During his 100-minute speech, the outgoing head of government proudly recounted China's economic achievements in recent years. He also outlined a slightly new direction for the country in response to widespread discontent amid political scandals, environmental problems and a need for improvement in the quality of life for the country's 1.3 billion citizens.
"We must make ensuring and improving people's well-being the starting point and goal of all the government's work, give entire priority to it, and strive to strengthen social development," Wen said.
The government would complete the construction of nearly 5 million more homes deemed affordable and then build an additional 6 million this year, he added.
"In response to people's expectations of having a good living environment, we should greatly strengthen ecological improvement and environmental protection," Wen said, citing the future of China as one reason behind the need for fighting pollution.
Government spending would also increase by about 10 percent to 13.8 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion) thanks to the steady growth and stability of the country. Military spending would remain a priority, although it would receive an increase of only 10.7 percent, down from 11.2 percent in the previous year.
Wen announced that the government was targeting a 7.5 percent growth in its gross domestic product for this year.
The outgoing prime minister also spoke of the need to tackle corruption as a driving force behind society's woes, a message that coincided with a once-in-a-decade transition of power.
"We should unwaveringly combat corruption, strengthen political integrity, establish institutions to end the excessive concentration of power and lack of checks on power," Wen said during his final address as premier. "[We must] ensure that officials are honest, government is clean and political affairs are handled with integrity."
The pledge echoed sentiments expressed by Xi Jinping, the communist leader poised to become president during this year's 13-day congress. Indeed, Xi, along with other party leaders have been gradually stepping into their roles since last November when the process of handing over power began.
Once Xi, 59, receives the official title of president during this session of the National People's Congress, he will have officially completed his transition to power as the official representative of China's people.
Since late last year, the "princeling" - a common term referring to senior officials who rose to power through family connections - has been serving as chairman of the Communist Party's Politburo and of the party's Central Military Commission. The new president's father was the prominent revolutionary Xi Zhongxun.
Though a major policy shift remains unlikely in the communist country, the incoming president has expressed in his characteristic straight talk an intention of tackling corruption and improving the quality of life for the country's vast population.
Discontent grew in China last year amid political scandals that tarnished the party's top leadership, including outgoing Premier Wen, whose family became the target of scrutiny from the New York Times. Relatives of Wen had amassed assets of about $2.7 billion over the past decade, the article said.
This year's congress is scheduled to end on March 17. Over the next 13 days, Chinese lawmakers have the task of approving policies, restructuring some government ministries and filling top posts.
kms/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)