New China premier to hold rare press conference

BEIJING (AFP) - China's new Premier Li Keqiang steps into the media spotlight on Sunday for a rare press conference, as the annual meeting of the country's rubber-stamp parliament closes.

Mr Li took control of the day to day running of China's government on Friday, a day after Mr Xi Jinping was handed the title of President, completing China's once-in-a-decade transition of its two top leaders.

The press conference will be a rare chance for foreign media to scrutinise Mr Li, as high-ranking Chinese politicians normally maintain strict secrecy and rarely give interviews to non-official media.

The event will be closely watched for any indications of which economic reforms Mr Li may seek to promote, as well as for declarations of action on official corruption and vows on political reform.

China's leaders have come under fire in the last year after reports, suppressed within the country, that the families of top politicians including Mr Xi have amassed huge wealth, but have not vowed to make their assets public.

Mr Li's own brother Li Keming is deputy director of China's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which runs and regulates the firm that controls around 98 per cent of the cigarette market in the country.

China has more than 300 million smokers.

Mr Li's answers at the conference are unlikely to depart from the ruling party's consensus view that China needs economic reform to maintain growth, while avoiding political reforms which could threaten its grip on power.

A press conference by the premier, which can last up to three hours, has been an annual part of China's political calendar for more than two decades.

Last year the then Premier Wen Jiabao warned the equivalent gathering that China could fall into deadly chaos without "urgent" political reform.

Wen advocated political change during several of his annual press conferences, but such reforms stagnated during his 10 years as premier, while rapid economic growth saw China become the world's second largest economy.

A career bureaucrat who speaks fluent English, Mr Li, 57, has a more youthful bearing than his stiff party peers, and has voiced support for the kind of economic reforms many experts say China sorely needs for continued growth.

Mr Li's real power comes from his position as number two in China's ruling Communist Party, and he needs to win the support of other top officials, including Mr Xi, to exert political influence.

Analysts say that his lack of close allies in the Communist Party's top decision-making body means that he will struggle to push through reforms.

The conference will come after the official closing of China's annual meeting of the National People's Congress, a rubber stamp parliament which this year passed measures including the abolition of China's scandal-hit railways ministry.

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