In normal years, the closely watched growth figure is an indication of the level of support the Chinese government is willing to provide the economy and of how much Australian businesses can expect to export to its largest trading partner.
“Not setting a specific target for economic growth will enable all of us to concentrate on ensuring stability on the six fronts and security in the six areas,” said Li.
“We must be clear that efforts to stabilise employment, ensure living standards, eliminate poverty, and prevent and defuse risks must be underpinned by economic growth; so ensuring stable economic performance is of crucial significance.”
In a sign China would continue to pursue market-based changes to its economy, Mr Li said the country needed to “pursue reform and opening-up as a means to stabilise employment, ensure people’s wellbeing, stimulate consumption, energise the market, and achieve stable growth”.
The work report, effectively a budget speech delivered in the Great Hall of the People each year, also focused on environmental protection measures, stimulating private sector development and infrastructure networks including 5G.
“We will endeavour to protect our blue skies, clear waters and clean lands, and meet the goals for the critical battle of pollution prevention and control,” Li said.
Confirming measures would be introduced to ban the trade of wild animals — widely regarded as the source of the coronavirus that has devastated the global economy —Li said illegal hunting and trading of wild animals “will be severely punished”.
China’s defence spending this year will rise at the slowest rate in three decades but will still increase by an impressive 6.6 per cent from 2019.
The figure, set at 1.268 trillion yuan ($272.31 billion) in the national budget released on Friday, is closely watched as a barometer of how aggressively the country will beef up its military.
Li pledged that the armed forces, the world’s largest, should not be worse off.
“We will deepen reforms in national defence and the military, increase our logistic and equipment support capacity, and promote innovative development of defence-related science and technology,” he told about 3000 delegates at the largely rubber-stamp legislature.
China routinely says the spending is for defensive purposes, it is a comparatively low percentage of its GDP, and critics just want to keep the country down.
China gives only a raw figure for military expenditure, with no breakdown. It is widely believed by diplomats and foreign experts that the country under-reports the real number.
The National People’s Congress, which began on Friday, is also expected to circumvent the Hong Kong government by establishing new national security laws that would ban sedition, secession and treason.
The measures will allow for widespread crackdowns on anti-government sentiment and are expected to ramp up hostility between Beijing and pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony.
Li said China would fully implement its policy of “One Country, Two Systems”.
“Under which the people of Hong Kong govern Hong Kong and the people of Macao govern Macao, with a high degree of autonomy for both regions,” he said.
“We will establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in the two special administrative regions, and see that the governments of the two regions fulfil their constitutional responsibilities.”
He said China would continue to resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking “Taiwan independence”. China claims sovereignty over its island neighbour and has barred it from attending World Health Assembly despite Taiwan’s success in suppressing the coronavirus.
The speech reaffirmed President Xi Jinping’s position at the centre of the party after earlier criticism of his response to the coronavirus by two prominent Chinese Communist Party critics, property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong.
“We must rally more closely around the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, uphold socialism with Chinese characteristics, and follow the guidance of Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” Li said.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Parliament House in Canberra.