China’s new Premier Li Keqiang has begun his ten year-term by issuing a warning of the challenges faced by the Communist Party in pushing forward reforms and tackling deep-rooted corruption, describing the road ahead as “painful” and blocked by “vested interests’.

Mr. Li, who was appointed as Premier by the National People's Congress (NPC) or Parliament on Friday, said the government’s move to restructure its administration by dissolving two Cabinet-level ministries, announced last week, was a first step in bringing about more efficient government.

He described the measure as the start of a “self-imposed revolution” to reduce bureaucracy and “curb government power”, to enable a greater role for the market and social forces. “Right now, there are over 1,700 items that still require the approval of State Council (Cabinet) departments. Within the term of this government, we are determined to cut that figure by at least one-third,” he said.

Mr. Li was speaking to reporters in his first press conference after taking over as Premier, which was held here on Sunday following the conclusion of the two week-long NPC session. The crucial Parliament meeting was held to formalise the appointment of the new government under Xi Jinping, who took over as the Communist Party’s General Secretary in November and was formally appointed President last week.

‘National revival’: Xi

Addressing the NPC’s closing session on Sunday, Mr. Xi, in his first speech as President, said the government would “push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, reiterating the theme of “national revival” he has emphasised in speeches since taking over.

“To realise the ‘Chinese dream’, China must take the Chinese way,” Mr. Xi said, stressing that the Party would not adopt political models from other countries. He also called on the Party to “resolutely reject formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance”, underscoring the threat posed by rampant corruption to the CPC’s legitimacy

Mr. Li, the Premier, struck a similar note in his press conference, stressing the need for reforms to make more government efficient. He outlined three new measures to tackle waste: he said the government would not use official funds to build new offices or official guest houses; the number of people on the government's payroll would decrease in coming months; and spending on official hospitality, overseas trips and official vehicles would decrease.

He admitted that “vested interests” posed a major obstacle to pushing reforms. “We may also have to confront some protracted problems as we will have to shake vested interests,” he said. “Sometimes stirring vested interests may be more difficult than stirring the soul. No matter how deep, we will wade into the water. In pursuing reform, we need to have courage, wisdom and tenacity.”

He acknowledged that people were “frustrated” by the inefficiency of the bureaucracy. “Such a state of affairs is not good for efficiency and might lead to rent-seeking and harm the image of the government,” he said. “We need to win the trust of the people and bring benefits to them by practicing frugality in government affairs”.

Mr. Li’s first public appearance, though tightly scripted – the questions from domestic and foreign media were pre-arranged – appeared to have been received positively by China’s online community, although the new leadership will face a tough challenge in putting into practice its commitment to new reforms.

No to hegemony

Mr. Li addressed only two questions on foreign policy in his two hour briefing. On China-U.S. relations, he said the common interests of both countries outweighed differences. He also dismissed allegations of cyber hacking aimed at the Chinese military by U.S. officials in recent weeks, saying the claims were “a presumption of guilt” and that China too was a victim of hacking attacks.

On relations with Russia, the destination of the first overseas State visit by new President Xi Jinping, Mr. Li said the visit later this month, which will be followed by a trip to the BRICS Summit in South Africa on March 26, underscored the sound ties between the two countries.

Mr. Li concluded his press conference with a message to reassure the concerns of the world – particularly China’s neighbours – about the country’s rise. “Even if China becomes stronger we will not seek hegemony, as we have learnt from our own bitter experience in the modern period that one should not impose on others what he himself should not desire,” he said. “This is an article of faith for us.”

He added that while China had “an unwavering commitment to peaceful development”, it also had “an unshakeable determination to safeguard our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. “These two are not contradictory to each other,” he said.

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