China leader promises 13 million new jobs, tax cuts to reverse economic slowdown

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China’s government hopes to generate as many as 13 million new jobs this year to help reverse a painful economic slowdown, the country’s number two leader said Friday.

Premier Li Keqiang promised “pro-job policies” including tax and fee cuts totaling 2.5 trillion yuan ($400 billion) for businesses, especially small entrepreneurs.

Job losses spiked after economic growth slid to four percent over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2021, down from the full year’s 8.1 percent expansion. That followed a plunge in construction after Beijing tightened controls on debt in its vast real estate industry, adding to strains from the coronavirus pandemic and weak export demand.

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China has been hit this month by higher energy costs after Russia’s attack on Ukraine caused global oil prices to soar.

“China aims to create 11 million — or preferably 13 million — urban jobs in 2022,” Li said at a news conference after the closing of the annual meeting of China’s ceremonial legislature.

Li called on Washington to repeal tariffs hikes on Chinese goods imposed in a fight with Beijing over its technology ambitions but gave no indication of possible concessions or other initiatives to resolve the conflict.

Trade envoys of the two governments have yet to meet since President Joe Biden took office in January 2020. They have talked by phone but announced no plans for face-to-face talks or changes in their official stances.

Li said Chinese business leaders he talked with support tax cuts as the quickest way to generate jobs instead of government-led investment or handing out vouchers to households to boost consumer spending.

“We need to rely on market-oriented avenues and means to resolve issues related to employment,” Li said.

Economic growth tumbled last year after Beijing tightened control on surging debt in the real estate industry, which Chinese leaders say is dangerously high. That triggered a slump in housing sales and construction, important economic engines.

Forecasters expect activity to weaken further before rebounding in mid-year. That is due in part to Beijing’s desire to rely on its traditional tool of encouraging real estate investment, which might push up debt and housing costs.

The ruling party earlier announced an annual economic growth target of 5.5 percent. That was the weakest goal since the 1990s and would be a marked decline from last year’s 8.1 percent growth.

Economists say achieving even that modest target will require additional government stimulus. Li earlier announced plans to inject money into the economy through higher spending on public works but said Beijing wants to restrain its budget deficit.

Li warned global conditions are “very challenging” after saying earlier that hitting Beijing’s growth target will require “arduous efforts.”

The weeklong meeting of the 3,000-plus members of the National People’s Congress took place against a backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the COVID-19 surge.

On Friday, Li called for ceasefire negotiations in Ukraine and promised Chinese help but avoided criticizing Russia and gave no indication Beijing was backing off its support for President Vladimir Putin.

Chinese state media have echoed Russia’s position and said Washington was to blame for the war.

The NPC meeting also served as a sounding board for public concerns including the trafficking of women and children following an outcry over reports of a mother found chained in a shed.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine echoes Beijing’s tensions with Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy the ruling party claims as part of its territory and has threatened to invade.

A spokesperson for NPC delegation from the ruling party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, this week blamed “separatist activities and collusion with external forces” for tensions with Taiwan and said the more the “United States and Japan make waves on the Taiwan question, the tougher actions we will take.”

The White House and US State Department this week accused Beijing of aiding Russian disinformation efforts, including false claims over US biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Wednesday said China “urges the US to disclose details on US-financed biological labs in Ukraine, including types of viruses stored and research has been conducted.”

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the allegations “outright lies” invented by Russia “in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine.”

This week, China has seen the number of domestic COVID-19 cases shoot to highs that are small compared to much of the world but have been unseen in China since the original outbreak two years ago. On Friday, 397 cases of local transmission were reported nationwide.

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