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New leaders in China speak of reform, end to corruption

Prime minister pledges to help spur investment

Prime Minister Li Keqiang vowed to trim the goverment work force and increase spending on social welfare.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Prime Minister Li Keqiang vowed to trim the goverment work force and increase spending on social welfare.

BEIJING — Li Keqiang, in his first comments as China’s prime minister, laid out a vision Sunday for a more equitable society in which environmental protection trumps unbridled growth and government officials put the people’s welfare before their own financial interests.

“Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water,’’ Li told reporters at the Great Hall of the People.

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Speaking on the final day of the legislative session that installed a new generation of leaders, Li vowed to ease impediments to private investment, rein in the powerful interests that dominate large sectors of the economy, and scale back an unwieldy, intrusive bureaucracy that he acknowledged often frustrated entrepreneurs and citizens.

In his inaugural speech earlier Sunday, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, spoke of the ‘‘Chinese Dream,’’ striking a nationalist note as he emphasized the glory of Chinese civilization. ‘‘Patriotism is always the spiritual force bonding the Chinese nation together as strong and unified,’’ he said.

The new government, led by Xi and the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, will impose a moratorium on the construction of government buildings and reduce spending on official vehicles, public meetings, and overseas travel, Li said. The government’s sprawling work force, he warned, would be trimmed to increase spending on social welfare.

‘‘Reforming is about curbing government power,’’ he said in his opening remarks, which were broadcast live on television. ‘‘It is a self-imposed revolution that will require real sacrifice, and it will be painful.’’

His comments, delivered with a casual spontaneity seldom seen from a Chinese leader, offered a tantalizing palette of economic and social changes that promised to transform the lives of the rural poor, the migrants flooding into the cities, and retirees who worry about rising prices and unaffordable health care.

Acknowledging that he has been ‘‘depressed’’ by the noxious pollution shrouding Beijing, Li encouraged the news media and the public to hold him accountable should his government fail to clean up China’s contaminated water and food supply.

‘‘Poverty and backwardness in the midst of clear waters and verdant mountains is no good,’’ he said, ‘‘nor is it to have prosperity and wealth while the environment deteriorates.’’

Li Weidong, a political commentator and former editor of China Reform magazine, said that he took ‘‘comfort in seeing that Li has an accurate understanding of the country’s problems.’’

‘‘He made a lot of promises, which shows he has confidence,’’ Li Weidong said, ‘‘and he seemed ready to take on the responsibility of fighting vested interests.’’

Even if bloggers and political analysts were encouraged by Li Keqiang’s comments — and his down-to-earth, direct speaking style — they noted that his promises were short on specifics.

He declined to discuss political changes, an issue that liberal intellectuals and policy advisers say must be addressed if the country is to tackle some of its most intractable problems. Instead, they said, he defended the modest package of administrative adjustments approved by the country’s party-run legislative session.

Li faces formidable obstacles. Changes that seek to increase opportunities for farmers, migrant workers, and entrepreneurs are sure to face resistance from an elite that has shown little interest in sharing the fruits of China’s fabled economic growth. He must also operate within a consensus-driven leadership, including a seven-member Politburo Standing Committee dominated by conservatives.

Even Li acknowledged the potential obstacles posed by those who have accumulated power and wealth during China’s three-decade embrace of market reform.

“Nowadays moving against these interests is often harder than laying a hand on a soul,’’ he said.

As the leader of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, Li is responsible for economic policy, health care, and education; he has expressed an interest in the challenges of urbanization. Responding to a reporter’s question, he said Beijing would spend liberally to help the millions of rural residents flocking to Chinese cities each year and would enact policies that foster sound development.

‘‘We must also be on guard against urban ills,’’ he said. ‘‘We can’t have it so there are skyscrapers side by side with slums.’’

Expectations for China’s first new leadership in a decade are high, heightened by Xi, who since his elevation as Communist Party chief in November has spoken about freform and shifting China’s growth toward domestic consumption and less on exports and infrastructure spending.

But Xi has also provoked some unease, especially among China’s neighbors, with his emphasis on bolstering the military and by promoting ‘‘a great national revival’’ that some have interpreted as code for a more muscular foreign policy.

While both Xi and Li are unvarnished party loyalists, reformers have placed much of their hopes for change on Li, 57, whose law degree and doctorate in economics from Peking University make him one of China’s best-educated leaders. Unlike Xi, a so-called princeling whose father was a Communist Party luminary, Li comes from a humble background.

The state-run media has promoted the image of Li as a modern, no-fuss leader. Commentators noted that compared with his predecessor, Wen Jiabao — who occasionally adorned his speeches with classic Chinese verse — Li seemed to speak unscripted, his hands slicing the air for emphasis.

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