BEIJING – China is kicking off its rubberstamp parliament session, the main event on its political calendar, on Saturday. The gathering of nearly 3,000 delegates in Beijing's Great Hall of the People comes amid slowing growth in China's economy and tension over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The session will end March 16.
Here are the latest developments. All times are local.
Delegates to the ceremonial legislature, which routinely endorses ruling party plans in near unanimous votes, praised the work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Li announced the government was trimming its economic growth target to between 6.5 and 7 percent, down from "about 7 percent" last year, and promised to open oil and telecoms industries to private competitors in sweeping industrial reforms.
Authorities are struggling to reassure the public and global markets about their ability to steer the world's second-largest economy following a plunge in stock prices and protests by laid-off workers. The ruling Communist Party has been trying to shift away from a heavy emphasis on trade and investment to growth driven more by consumer spending. Growth rate last year declined to a 25-year low of 6.9 percent.
"If the 6.5 to 7 percent growth should be solid and real, I think it's very acceptable," said Liu Gexin, a delegate from Sichuan province in the southwest.
Others were more breathlessly enthusiastic. "It's an exhilarating report. It's a mobilization order," said delegate Zhu Liangyu from Beijing. "I completely agree with it."
Li also said the party's reform plans require it to cut the dominance of state companies that dominate industries from banking and telecoms to oil and steel and give entrepreneurs a bigger role. He promised to open electric power, telecoms, transportation, oil, natural gas and municipal utilities to private competition.
Premier Li Keqiang has pledged "full support" for Hong Kong's embattled chief executive and said Beijing is convinced the city will "maintain long-term prosperity and stability."
In his speech to the National People's Congress that started Saturday, Li made no mention of recent social and political turbulence in the former British colony.
Also, without mentioning recent elections in Taiwan that were seen as a setback for Beijing, Li said China would stick to its major policies on Taiwan. That includes opposing the island's independence and insisting that it agree that Taiwan and mainland China are part of a single Chinese nation to be unified eventually, something the island's president-elect Tsai Ing-wen has so far refused to do.
Along with safeguarding China's "sovereignty and territorial integrity," China also wants to maintain "the peaceful growth of cross-Strait relations and safeguard peace and stability in the Taiwan strait," Li said.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.
Tibetan delegates to the congress wore two pins, one representing the past leaders since Mao, the other one showing current leader Xi Jinping. The displays of allegiance by Tibetan delegates at this high profile political event come as tensions continue to simmer in the country's Western minority regions.
Earlier this week, a Tibetan Buddhist monk set himself on fire and died in a protest against Chinese rule, in the first such action of its kind this year, according to the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia. Also this week in India, a Tibetan teenager died following a similar self-immolation protest.
The Chinese premier on Saturday did not mention such tensions but said China would "stick to the Chinese way — the right way — of managing ethnic issues."
An advance copy of the budget to China's national congress says the government will increase national defense spending by 7.6 percent in 2016, the smallest increase in six years. It reflects slowing growth in the world's second-largest economy and a drawdown of troops as Beijing seeks to build a more streamlined, modern military.
The figure in Saturday's report comes a day after the spokeswoman for the legislature, the National People's Congress, said China would boost defense spending by about 7 to 8 percent.
The People's Liberation Army is being trimmed to 2 million troops from 2.3 million but will still be the world's largest standing military. China's plan to spend 954 billion yuan ($146 billion) on defense spending this year is still less than one-third of what the U.S. is proposing to spend this year.
As in other years, there are groups of young women in tall red coats and young men in gray uniforms assigned to give directions in Tiananmen Square, but they spend a good deal of time posing and jumping in unison for pictures. Journalists from domestic and international media outlets are in the square, flanked by imposing communist edifices. Many are using cellphones to take selfies in several directions.
In his speech to delegates, Premier Li Keqiang (pronounced "Lee kuh-chiang") pledged to boost consumption in areas such as elder care, health services as well as to promote the linking of offline services with Internet users.
As China's population ages, demand for elder care is projected to grow as is the need for better medical services. Meanwhile, venture capital investors and the country's Internet giants have poured billions of dollars into an array of mobile platforms that connect smartphone users with movie ticketing, food delivery, restaurant reservation and flight booking services.
The Chinese government hopes such services can help drive domestic consumption, which swelled as a percentage of GDP from 36.8 percent in 2005 to 44.5 percent last year.
Li says China needs to fix its environmental problem: "We must build a beautiful China where the sky is blue the earth is green and the water runs clear."
Outside the Great Hall of the People where he is speaking, the air in Tiananmen Square is still a light hazy gray, although significantly better than Friday, when Beijing was smothered by the worst pollution so far in 2016. The city's levels of the dangerous PM2.5 particles were above 400 micrograms per cubic meter in some places, more than 16 times World Health Organization safety level.
Li's speech opened China's rubberstamp parliament session, the main event on its political calendar.
Li moves from a recap of the past year to his forward-looking portion of his speech.
He promises innovative technology and advanced manufacturing by 2020, when China's output should reach 90 trillion yuan and says science and R&D will account for 2.5 percent of China's GDP and a significant amount of world research spending. "This will be a remarkable achievement," he says.
Li mentions two disasters that struck China this year, a cruise shipwreck in the Yangtze River and a massive chemical explosion in Tianjin, saying the deaths and injuries "were devastating and profound lessons can never be forgotten." He says "there are still inadequacies in the work of the government" and instances where employees are unable to fulfill their duties. "We must be more mindful of the difficulties ahead," he said
On behalf of China's Cabinet, Li expresses gratitude for accomplishments in the past year to ethnic minorities, other political parties in China and the governments in Hong Kong and Macao, drawing repeated rounds of applause.
Although China's technically has other political parties and a plethora of ethnic minorities represented in its people's congress, the body is largely a rubber-stamp parliament and decision-making is concentrated within a small circle of the Communist Party leadership.
Premier Li Keqiang pledges to push forward with China's economic transformation, re-emphasizing two government plans, Internet Plus to incentivize Internet and e-commerce-related businesses and "Made in China 2025" to upgrade China's manufacturing facilities.
In the past year, China has cut millions of tons of excess production capacity in steel, glass and aluminum and other inefficient heavy industries.
Delegates gathered in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, some wearing traditional garb, read through printed copies of the report as Li spoke, some of them adding their own notes in pen.
With delegates already in their seats, Chinese leaders file into the cavernous, red-carpeted Great Hall of the People to piped martial music for the opening of the National People's Congress. A bell rings at about 9:00 a.m. and congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang declares the session open, saying that 2,890 delegates are present, with 53 absent. All stand as the Chinese national anthem plays. Premier Li Keqiang then begins to deliver his speech.
An advance copy of Premier Li Keqiang's annual work report delivered to the legislature sets an economic growth target of 6.5-7 percent for this year, down from last year's goal of "about 7 percent." China's economy has cooled steadily as the ruling Communist Party tries to replace a worn-out model based on trade and investment with self-sustaining growth driven by domestic consumption.
Crowds gathered near the iconic Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing for a flag-raising ceremony ahead of the opening session of China's annual ceremonial legislature. The square itself is closed to the public, and onlookers watched from across a street amid tight security ahead of the session.