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China sets growth target ‘over 6%’, tightening HK control

BEIJING, China (AP) – China’s number two leader set a healthy economic growth target last Friday and vowed to make the nation self-reliant in technology amid tension with the US and Europe over trade and human rights. Another official announced plans to tighten control over Hong Kong by reducing the public’s role in government.

The ruling Communist Party aims for growth of “over six per cent” as the world’s second-largest economy rebounds from the novel coronavirus, Premier Li Keqiang said in a speech to China’s ceremonial legislature. About 3,000 delegates gathered for its annual meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, under intense security and anti-virus controls. It has been shortened from two weeks to one because of the pandemic.

The party is shifting back to its longer-term goal of becoming a global competitor in telecoms, electric cars and other profitable technology. That is inflaming trade tension with Washington and Europe, which complain Beijing’s tactics violate its market-opening commitments and hurt foreign competitors.

Li promised progress in reining in climate-changing carbon emissions, a step toward keeping President Xi Jinping’s pledge last year to become carbon-neutral by 2060. But he avoided aggressive targets that might weigh on economic growth.

The NPC meeting focuses on domestic issues but is overshadowed by geopolitics as Xi’s government pursues more assertive trade and strategic policies and faces criticism over its treatment of Hong Kong and ethnic minorities. The ruling party has doubled down on crushing dissent as Xi tries to cement his image as a history-making leader reclaiming China’s rightful place as a global power.

An NPC deputy chairman, Wang Chen, said a Hong Kong Election Committee dominated by businesspeople and other pro-Beijing figures will be given a bigger role in choosing the territory’s legislature. Wang said the Election Committee would choose a “relatively large” share of the now 70-member Legislative Council.

That came after a spokesman for the legislature on Thursday said Beijing wants “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” fuelling fears opposition voices will be shut out of the political process.

Li, the premier, said Beijing wants to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong.

Also Friday, the Government announced a 6.8 per cent rise in military spending to 1.4 trillion yuan (US$217 billion) amid territorial disputes with India and other neighbours and ambitions to match the United States and Russia in missile, stealth fighter and other weapons technology.

That is less than the double-digit increases of earlier years but a marked rise in real terms when inflation is close to zero. Foreign analysts say total military spending is up to 40 per cent more than the reported figure, the world’s second-highest after the United States.

China became the only major economy to grow last year, eking out a multi-decade-low 2.3 per cent expansion after shutting down industries to fight the virus. Growth accelerated to 6.5 per cent over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2020 while the United States, Europe and Japan struggled with renewed virus outbreaks.

The six per cent target is higher than expectations for the United States and other major economies but less than the seven-eight per cent forecasters expected Li to announce.

That suggests Beijing is “shifting focus from quantity to quality of economic growth,” said Chaoping Zhu of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.

Beijing might allocate resources to environmental protection and other initiatives “to boost China’s long-term growth potential”, Zhu said.

Li vowed to “work faster” to develop tech capabilities seen by Communist leaders as a path to prosperity, strategic autonomy and global influence. Those plans are threatened by conflicts with Washington over technology and security that prompted then-US President Donald Trump to slap sanctions on companies including telecom equipment giant Huawei, China’s first global tech brand.

The ruling party’s latest five-year development blueprint says efforts to make China a self-reliant “technology power” are this year’s top economic priority.

The party sees “technological self-reliance as a strategic support for national development,” Li said.