China's Hu Opens Key Congress with Reform Pledges

President Hu Jintao opened China's biggest political event in five years on Monday with pledges to curb the worst excesses of breakneck economic growth and implement limited political reforms.

President Hu Jintao applauds at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress

Addressing the Chinese Communist Party's elite gathered in Beijing for their five-yearly Congress, Hu said China's modernisation drive since the late 1970s had created enormous wealth but at huge environmental and social costs.

"Development patterns will be significantly transformed," Hu told more than 2,200 delegates at the Great Hall of the People in a nationally televised address.

Although he stressed fast economic growth was still a top priority, he said authorities had to take into account the "excessively high cost" on resources and the environment.

"There remains an imbalance in development between urban and rural areas, among regions and between the economy and society," Hu added, referring to the huge and widening wealth divide across the country.

Hu, almost certain to be endorsed as the nation's leader for another five years during the week-long Congress, also signalled gradual political reforms, but reassured his cadres that the party would remain dominant.

"As an important part of the overall reform, political restructuring must be constantly deepened," he said, advocating more democracy, particularly at the grass-roots level.

"(But) in deepening political restructuring, we must keep to the correct political orientation... we must uphold the party's role at the core of the leadership."

The Congress, which will discuss and approve the party's agenda for the coming five years, was held amid extremely tight security as authorities sought to ensure no critical voices were heard.

Police lined every corner of the main road leading to the Great Hall of the People and the adjacent Tiananmen Square was closed to the public, while dissidents were already safely detained or placed under surveillance.

Some rights activists said security forces had conducted their most severe crackdown on dissent in five years, which they fear will continue in the lead-up to Beijing hosting the Olympics in August next year.

Following the Congress, to be held mostly behind closed doors, a new leadership team will be announced that will likely see a successor to Hu emerge to take over as party chief and president in 2012.

Li Keqiang, the 52-year-old party boss of the northeastern province of Liaoning and an ally of Hu, is seen as one of the front-runners.

He and Xi Jinping, 54, the party chief of Shanghai, are regarded as favourites to be promoted into the elite nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo alongside Hu.

The make-up of the Standing Committee will also be closely watched to see how strong Hu's powerbase is after five years in power, and whether he has been able to shake off the lingering influence of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

In one sign that Hu had strengthened his base, a Congress spokesman said Sunday that Hu's ideology of "scientific development" would be incorporated into the party's constitution this week.

Scientific development is a catchphrase for Hu's efforts to develop a more sustainable economic model, tempering the focus on growth-at-all-costs seen under Jiang's reign.

In his speech on Monday, which lasted for two hours and 30 minutes, Hu repeatedly referred to "scientific development" and a "harmonious society".

He also warned his comrades that corruption remained a big threat to the survival of the party.

"Resolutely punishing and effectively preventing corruption bears on the popular support for the party and on its very survival and is therefore a major political task the party must attend to at all times," he said.

On Taiwan, he called for a peace agreement with the island and used generally moderate language, although he insisted independence would never be tolerated.

Addressing the nation's military, Hu called for rapid development of China's high-tech warfare capabilities, while describing the country as a force for peace.

Source: AFP

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