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China's new leaders vow reform to help rural poor

©Associated Press

March 19, 2003

BEIJING -- Laying out ambitious goals, China's new leaders vowed Tuesday to spur reform in Asia's fastest-growing economy and spread the benefits to the poor but gave no hint of opening the one-party Communist system.

"China's development is at a new historical starting point," declared President Hu Jintao in a speech to the legislature broadcast nationwide on live television.

In their first public comments since being named to their posts this weekend, Hu and new Premier Wen Jiabao committed themselves to the Communist Party's increasingly capitalist economic outlook. The government "must achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Hu said.

The elevation of Hu and Wen, both 60, culminated a long-planned handover of power to a younger generation that was China's first orderly succession in the Communist era. President Jiang Zemin has stayed on as chairman of a key military commission, giving him continuing influence.

The new government coincides with a shift toward developing China's vast, poor interior, after two decades of economic reforms that enriched its export-driven east but threw tens of millions of people out of work and left behind hundreds of millions more. Party leaders worry that mounting frustration could lead to unrest that might threaten Communist rule.

Hu did not mention the poor in a five-minute speech that invoked the memory of Communist founder Mao Tse-tung and Jiang's pet theory, the "Three Represents" that calls on the party to change with the times and make room in its ranks for entrepreneurs.

But Wen, charged with running the economy, said his first priority is raising rural incomes in the countryside, where most of China's 1.3-billion people live.

He said the country must push ahead with reforms in order to create jobs and build a financial system capable of supporting the new economy by clearing away mountains of unpaid loans at state banks. "Only by adhering to the leadership of the Communist Party of China and by continuing the reform and opening up, is it possible for China to achieve prosperity," Wen told foreign and Chinese reporters.

Despite promises of economic change, Wen gave no sign the party plans to ease its monopoly on power. He did not answer directly when asked whether he would urge the release of Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party general secretary who has lived under house arrest since losing a power struggle after the crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in 1989.

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