BEIJING – Premier Wen Jiabao vowed Saturday never to permit formal independence for Taiwan as he opened a session of China's figurehead parliament that is to enact an anti-secession law aimed at the self-ruled island.
In a nationally televised speech, Wen also said China is aiming for 8 percent economic growth this year as it tries to slow a surging expansion that leaders worry could spark financial problems.
Wen gave no details of the anti-secession law, which Taiwanese leaders say could set the stage for a military attack. Beijing claims Taiwan, which split from China in 1949, as part of its territory.
Speaking before lawmakers in the cavernous Great Hall of the People (search), Wen said the law reflects the "strong determination of the Chinese people to ... never allow secessionist forces working for `Taiwan independence' to separate Taiwan from China."
Wen also promised to spend heavily on easing politically volatile poverty in China's vast countryside, where low incomes and heavy taxes have sparked violent protests.
Communist leaders regard rural anger as their most pressing domestic issue, though poverty and social issues were overshadowed by controversy over the planned anti-secession law in advance of the National People's Congress session. A final vote on the law is scheduled for March 14, the last day of the congress.
Wen said all farm taxes will be eliminated next year and promised that by 2007 every Chinese child can receive nine years of schooling — an extraordinary commitment in a country where incomes per person average just $1,000 a year. Children from poor families will be exempt from most fees and receive free textbooks, the premier said, though he didn't make clear whether they will still have to pay tuition.
The 2,985-member NPC approves legislation already decided by the ruling Communist Party (search). But the body also serves as a tool to keep communist leaders in touch with a fast-changing, increasingly capitalist society and provides a high-profile stage for announcing national policy and initiatives such as the anti-secession law.
As its session opened, hundreds of police and plainclothes security agents stood guard outside the Great Hall and on adjacent Tiananmen Square (search) to prevent demonstrations.
The legislature coincides with reports that Beijing plans to dismiss unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (search).
Tung was to meet with Hu on Saturday afternoon and return to Hong Kong on Sunday, according to an official who asked not to be identified. The official said the meeting's agenda wasn't known yet and he declined to provide other details.
Wen's two-hour speech, interrupted repeatedly by applause, focused on domestic concerns. In a passing reference to foreign affairs, Wen sounded standard themes, saying China would oppose terrorism and hegemony — Beijing's term for sweeping U.S. global power.
Wen vowed to push forward with the costly modernization of the huge but antiquated People's Liberation Army, whose 2.5 million members make up the world's biggest fighting force.
On Friday, the government announced a 12.6 percent increase in military spending — its fourth double-digit increase in five years as it tries to back up threats to attack Taiwan.
The government says it plans to spend $29.9 billion on its military this year, though analysts say China's true spending is as much as several times the reported figure.
Wen said military modernization was key to "safeguarding national security and reunification" — a reference to Taiwan.
Wen also promised to promote environmental protection and more energy-efficient, less polluting technologies — a key issue in a country that is a leading oil importer and source of pollution.