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China's New Priority: Social Wellbeing Over Growth

By GILLIAN WONG

BEIJING (AP) â¿¿ China's government pledged Tuesday to repair the ravaged environment and boost public services under its new leadership, an acknowledgment that the country's quality of life was sidelined during the outgoing administration's decade of breakneck economic growth.

In an annual policy speech that served as his swansong, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the country's economic achievements under his stewardship â¿¿ including weathering the 2008 global financial crisis â¿¿ but also outlined the myriad problems his team was handing over to its successor.

Chief among them: a sputtering growth model, rampant degradation of the country's air, waterways and soil, a burgeoning income gap and widespread corruption. The public also is unhappy about problems with food safety, health care and housing, Wen acknowledged.

"Some of these problems have built up over time, while others have emerged in the course of economic and social development, and still others have been caused by inadequacies and weaknesses in our government work," Wen said in a 100-minute speech opening the national legislature's annual session in the Great Hall of the People, his last address before stepping down.

"We should have a strong sense of responsibility toward our country and people, work harder and solve these problems more quickly in order to meet people's expectations and never let them down," he said.

The speech outlined the government's priorities as it nears the conclusion of a once-a-decade leadership transition that began four months ago when Xi Jinping and other younger leaders were appointed to run the ruling Communist Party. The largely ceremonial legislature, known as the National People's Congress, caps the transition and approves appointments to top government posts to manage the economic and foreign policies of the world's second largest economy and fledgling global power.

Together, the new leaders come to power at a time when Chinese feel the policies that delivered stunning growth are foundering in the ill-effects of corruption and environmental degradation and that benefits unfairly accrue to a party-connected elite. Xi has raised expectations for change in his first months in office, talking about the urgent need to stanch graft and adhere to laws rather than rule by untrammeled power.

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