China opens ceremonial congress, key annual political event

BEIJING (AP) — 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.

9:41 Saturday

Premier Li Keqiang (pronounced “Lee kuh-chiang”) 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.


9:35 a.m.

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.


9:29 a.m.

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.


9:18 a.m. Saturday

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.


9:00 a.m.

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.


8:00 a.m.

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.


6:41 a.m.

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.