The news conference — held annually at the close of the National People’s Congress — drew widespread attention because it is one of the only times each year when China’s top leaders open themselves to public questioning.
Even as Xi and Li are trying to project an image of new transparency, there are clear limits to that effort, as Sunday’s news conference showed. All questions at the news conference were carefully pre-screened, and answers were apparently prepared well in advance.
The premier was asked about China’s increasing problems with pollution, its widely despised labor camps, its economic slowdown and rampant problems with corruption. The corruption question yielded one of the few detailed responses at the event, with Li saying the new administration planned to further curb signs of ostentation by building no new ornate government buildings and decreasing official receptions and visits abroad.
“Reform is about curbing government power. It is a self-imposed revolution,” Li said. “It will require real sacrifice, and it will be painful, like cutting the wrist. But this is necessary for development and demanded by people.”
He also invoked repeatedly the importance of the rule of law, acknowledging a common complaint among citizens about a judicial system that critics say is often decided by personal contacts rather than what is right.
On a question about pollution and environmental safety — on a particularly hazy day and after more than 12,000 pigs were mysteriously found dead in rivers that provide drinking water to Shanghai — Li said the pollution “depressed” him and that economic growth should not be pursued at the expense of the environment.
Li dismissed one reporter’s question about U.S. charges of official Chinese involvement in hacking American companies and government agencies to carry out cyber-espionage. He called the charges “groundless accusations,” and he repeated long-standing bromides about the U.S.-China relationship, saying it should stress mutual interests rather than differences.
Those differences are likely to come up later this week when U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew visits China, with the topic of recent cyberattacks on U.S. companies likely unavoidable.
At the conclusion of the two-hour news conference, Li acknowledged general alarm from other countries at China’s rise. They are worried about the sustainability of China’s growth and its possible use of force and hegemony, he said, referring indirectly to China’s pollution and its increasingly aggressive posture in the region.
He tried to allay those fears, saying China would not “force on others what we don’t want ourselves.”
But for the most part, the comments by the premier and president seemed geared to domestic concerns.
Xi has talked repeatedly in recent months of pursuing a new “Chinese dream,” which he has often characterized in terms of the nation as a whole — a common theme for a Communist government that emphasizes the collective. But in Sunday’s speech, Xi linked that dream more closely to improving the lives of individuals.
“Chinese people living in our great motherland and this great era shall share the chance of living a splendid life, share the chance of realizing the dream, share the chance of growing and improving along with the motherland,” he said.
Public reaction to both leaders included praise for how they handled themselves, mixed with healthy doses of skepticism about their sincerity.
“Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang look smart and pragmatic, more and more like Western politicians,” noted one microblogger under the handle Bright New Moon. “Right now, we listen more to what they say than we observe what they do. . . . It has thundered loudly, but now we are waiting to see if it will rain or not.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.