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China’s premier vows ‘self-imposed revolution’ for government, environment

China's newly appointed Premier Li Keqiang, centre, speaks during a press conference after the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Sunday, March 17, 2013. China's new leaders pledged to run a cleaner, more efficient government and slash spending on official perks Sunday as the ceremonial legislature wrapped up a pivotal session to install a new leadership in a once-a-decade transfer of power.

Andy Wong/AP

China's new premier vowed Sunday to launch a "self-imposed revolution," promising to reform the country's sprawling bureaucracy, tackle official corruption and inviting the public and media to hold his government more accountable.

On a day when the when Tiananmen Square was enveloped in acrid smog, and the tally of dead pigs found floating in a Shanghai river passed 12,500, Premier Li Keqiang also pledged to work to clean the environment and to improve food and water safety.

But Mr. Li also suggested the reforms he and the newly installed President Xi Jinping are proposing might face opposition from inside the country's authoritarian system. "Sometimes stirring vested interests can be more difficult than stirring the soul," he said, without explaining what he meant. "No matter how deep the water is, we'll wade into it because we have no alternative."

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Speaking to foreign and domestic media two days after his acclamation to the No. 2 post in China's government, the 57-year-old Mr. Li said "painful" reforms were required to deliver better government to China's 1.3 billion citizens. While tight political controls make it difficult to measure popular satisfaction with Communist Party rule, there is palpably rising anger over official corruption, environmental degradation and the widening wealth gap between China's fast-growing cities and its impoverished countryside.

"Reforming is about curbing government power. It is a self-imposed revolution. It will require real sacrifice and will be painful. But this is what is wanted by the government and demanded by the people," Mr. Li told a press conference that closed the once-a-year session of the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp parliament. The tightly scripted question-and-answer session was broadcast live on China's state-owned television channels.

Mr. Li said battling corruption was one of the primary tasks facing his new government, which includes prominent reform-minded politicians including Lou Jiwei, former head of the massive China Investment Corporation sovereign wealth find, who on Saturday was named Finance Minister. Wang Yang, who during his five years as boss of southern Guangdong province was known for being relatively tolerant of dissent, was made vice-premier in charge of economic policy.

"By building a clean government, we will elevate our credibility, governance and efficiency." That meant the senior leaders themselves had to be clean, Mr. Li said.

"Only by being upright oneself, can he then ask others to be upright," he said, adding that his government would be "willing to accept supervision from the whole society and media," although he did not suggest officials needed to publicized their assets, as many Chinese Internet users have called for. Nor was there any suggestion China will end its tight censorship of domestic media and the Internet.

While the Chinese public is used to anti-corruption rhetoric, Mr. Li set three clear benchmarks for his government to be judged upon: He banned the construction of new government buildings, vowed to shrink the size of the bureaucracy, and promised to slash spending on hospitality, junkets and government vehicles.

The comments came almost a year to the day after one-time Communist Party star Bo Xilai was last seen in public before he was detained for what state media have called abuse of power and massive corruption. He is expected to finally face trial some time in the coming weeks.

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Mr. Li's reference to "being upright oneself" could also be seen as a poke at the reputation of his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, who retired last week with his reputation tarnished by media reports into the $2.7-billion in wealth his family allegedly accumulated during his rise to power.

Mr. Li said no one, no matter his or her office, could be above the rule of law. He also revealed that the government is planning reforms to the Mao Zedong-era labour camp system – under which Chinese citizens can be sentenced to up to four years of forced labour without ever seeing a lawyer or judge – and will present a plan by the end of the year.

Mr. Li made no specific promises on the environment, but admitted the epic air pollution that has persisted in Beijing in recent months – which has been blamed for a spike in hospital admissions from respiratory ailments – made him "very angry." He wondered aloud about the trade-off between rapid economic growth, which he said remains the top priority of the Chinese government, with targeted annual expansion of 7.5 per cent for the rest of the decade, and the impact on the environment.

"It is no good to be poor in a beautiful environment, nor is it any good to be well-off and to live with the consequences of environment degradation," he said.

Mr. Li didn't mention the dead pigs found over the past week floating in the Huangpu River that cuts through Shanghai – the corpses are believed to have been dumped there by farmers upstream after the pigs contracted a virus – but said his government would "upgrade China's economic development model to enable people to enjoy clean air, safe drinking water and food."

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