The annual session of China's legislature may be a rubber-stamp parliament more famous for its yawning delegates than exciting policy debate, but a slew of key information on China's economy and reform agenda is traditionally released during the meeting. Last week was no exception. Below are the key insights.
China's GDP growth: 'Around 7.5%'
Is the growth target announced by Premier Li Keqiang too hot, too cold or just right? Some reformers had argued for a lower target, and many have questioned Beijing's ability to pull off 7.5% while tackling local government debt, pursuing structural and financial reforms and grappling with pollution.
'Around 7.5%' signals that strong growth is still objective No. 1 for the government, and suggests that reforms which could carry a positive or neutral influence, such as private sector investment in key industries, will proceed quicker than other imperatives, such as tackling overcapacity in the industrial sector. 'Around' offers some wiggle room: if growth for the year comes in at anything above 7%, the Government could conceivably claim its target has been met.
Military spending is a top priority
China's official defence budget is set to increase 12.2% this year, up one and a half percentage points from 2013. In raw terms the budget will rise to roughly RMB 808 billion (A$145 billion), though off-the-books spending is possibly worth several hundred billion RMB more.
Significantly, it is now clear that defence spending had decoupled from economic growth.
The standard Chinese line when questioned about increased defence spending in the past has been that it was a natural result of rising GDP; that position is no longer tenable. For more on China's military spending see this excellent piece by Zachary Keck over at The Diplomat.
Reform: all hat and no cattle?
Premier Li mentioned 'reform' 77 times in his opening speech last Wednesday. While paying lip service to the ambitious 60-point economic, social and legal reform agenda outlined at last year's Third Plenum, Li was vague on timelines and vaguer on details. The report suggests 2014 will likely see further interest-rate liberalisation and the establishment of deposit insurance system. For movement on big issues like fiscal and land reform, it looks like we're in for a wait.
One reform we may see announced today in the parliament, according to Reuters, is a curtailing of the powers of the Communist Party's Political and Legal Committee to interfere in legal cases. Previously, the committee had told the courts to place the party's interests above everything else, including the constitution. The change suggests powers of interference will be restricted to cases involving politically sensitive issues.
The Tiger in the room
President Xi Jinping's 'tigers and flies' anti-corruption campaign (some would say 'purge') against the top echelons of the Communist Party (some would say 'Xi's enemies') is drawing to a close. A valid case could be made that bolder reforms will only be instituted when all Xi's tigers have been rounded up.
One is still at large: former member of China's Politburo standing committee and security kingpin Zhou Yongkang, long rumoured to be the target of a corruption investigation, is Xi's last and biggest scalp. In a press conference on 1 March, a senior official hinted for the first time that an announcement on an investigation against Zhou could come soon. If the announcement isn't forthcoming, Xi's standing within the party will take a big hit and his power to take on anti-reform interest groups could wane.
But nabbing Zhou may just have got a little bit harder: the Kunming knife attack on 1 March may reinvigorate the prestige of Communist Party security hardliners, among whom Zhou's standing is high.
Photo by Flickr user Remko Tanis.