BEIJING – China's new leaders struck a populist tone Sunday as they got down to the painstaking work of governing, promising cleaner government, less red tape and more fairness to enlarge a still small middle class and help struggling private businesses.
In appearances that mark the completion of a months-long, orchestrated leadership transition, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang stressed the urgency of reining in runaway official corruption to restore the Communist Party's frayed public credibility.
Li made specific pledges to slash official perks and government extravagance to free up money for social welfare programs at a time of slower economic growth. He said a ban will be put on building new government offices, government payrolls will be reduced, as will spending on banquets, travel and cars — behavior that has fueled public anger and protests.
"If the people are to live a good life, their government must be put on a tight budget," Li said in his first news conference as premier after the end of the annual session of the national legislature.
Earlier, in addressing the nearly 3,000 legislative deputies in the Great Hall of the People, Xi promised to root out "corruption and other misconduct in all manifestations." He said people's own aspirations must be part of "the Chinese dream" — a signature phrase he has used to invoke national greatness. "Each of us must have broad space to diligently realize our own dreams," he said.
Though Xi and Li were installed as Nos. 1 and 2 in the party leadership in November, Sunday's closing of the legislature means their government is now fully in place. The legislature appointed Cabinet ministers, named Li premier, gave Xi the ceremonial title of president and thereby relieved their predecessors of office.
The legislature's close — and their appearances — also brought a concerted push to burnish the leaders' image before a public that has grown more demanding as it has become more prosperous and better connected by the Internet and cellphones. Expectations have run high in recent months that the new leadership would address social sore-spots: close a wide wealth gap, curb the often capricious use of official power and clean up an environment degraded by the headlong pursuit of growth.
Both Xi's speech and Li's news conference were nationally televised. In them, they showed personality differences with their predecessors. Xi appeared more commanding and comfortable with his authority than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Li was more direct and plainly spoken if less sympathetic than the grandfatherly Wen Jiabao, who larded his news conferences with references to classical poetry.
Li also gave a hint of his fluency in English. At one point he corrected a translator for saying "thank you" at the end of a translation when Li had not said it. The 57-year-old also recalled having been exiled to work in a poor rural village in his teens in the 1970s, like many in his generation under Mao Zedong's radical rule, before market reforms and the reopening of universities brought change.
The reforms, he said, "have lifted hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty and it has changed the life course of many individuals, including me."
Both events were heavily scripted. Questions by Chinese and foreign reporters at Li's 115-minute news conference were largely prearranged and pre-screened. Still, in a system where interactions between the leadership and the media are rare, the premier's sole news conference of the year provides a window into the leaders' personalities and thinking.
"It takes time to see if he can do a good job or not, but the language, logic and way of expression finally rid themselves of the shadow of old times. It's not easy," Xie Wen, a technology entrepreneur, said on his Sina Corporation micro-blog, which has 164,000 followers.
In talking tough about corruption, Li did not mention calls from experts to introduce public disclosure of official assets nor media reports about the huge wealth amassed by the family members of many in the communist elite.
"Clean government should start with oneself. Only when one is upright in oneself can he or she ask others to be upright. This is an ancient adage, but also the truth," Li said. "Since we have chosen government service we should give up the thought of making money. We will readily accept the supervision of the whole society and the media."
More striking was a vision Li outlined of a more limited government and its ties to reducing graft and unleashing the dynamism of entrepreneurs, migrant workers and the middle class. To do so will require taking on vested interests, he said, without identifying by name the powerful state-run enterprises and well-connected businesses.
"The government should be the guardian of social fairness. We need to work hard to create equal opportunities for everyone," Li said. "So that people's hard work will be duly rewarded, and that whatever type of wealth creator you are — a state-owned enterprise, a private enterprise or individually run business — as long as you compete on level playing and conduct business in a clean and honest way then you will be able to taste success."
Li said that a government restructuring approved by the legislature is intended to streamline decision-making and limit interference in people's lives. He promised to reduce by at least a third the 1,700 approvals required by the State Council, or Cabinet, for financing of projects and other work.
"We need to leave to the market and society what they can do well, and on the part of the government we need to manage well the matters that fall within its purview," Li said.