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China begins annual political sessions with synchronized tea pouring and the shadow of a leadership shuffle

The world’s largest legislature opened its annual meeting on Sunday with one major goal: to avoid any controversy.

China set a slightly lower growth target but couched it in optimistic terms; announced the slowest rise in defense spending in seven years; and pledged to speed up efforts to eliminate the layer of smog that envelops the country’s skies.

The National People’s Congress, a largely ceremonial body, sticks to a script and proceeds like an overly choreographed play — down to servers’ synchronized pouring of tea. But officials are working even harder this year to praise their boss and make sure nothing goes wrong. The reason: A leadership shakeup this fall could lay the foundation for President Xi Jinping to extend his years in power.

“We owe all the achievements made over the last year to the sound leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told nearly 3,000 delegates at its opening session.

The party granted Xi “core leader” status in October, something it did not do for his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Xi, 63, holds at least 12 titles, including Communist Party head and commander in chief.

Li projected economic growth this year “around 6.5%, or higher if possible,” just under the target last year of 6.5% to 7%. Expansion slowed to 6.7% in 2016, the weakest in a quarter century, but still among the fastest in the world.

“The projected target for this year’s growth is realistic,” Li said, in a work report he read aloud for more than an hour and a half. “An important reason for stressing the need to maintain stable growth is to ensure employment and improve people’s lives.”

Fleets of buses carted delegates to the opening at the Great Hall of the People, a massive gray-columned building on Tiananmen Square that represents the political heart of China. Soldiers saluted the vehicles from their posts along the 10-lane thoroughfare, almost empty of traffic.

The high-security event is known as the “two sessions” because it also involves the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. More than 2,000 people belong to this advisory group, including basketball star Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan. All fit into a cavernous room that looks up at a stage with the Communist Party emblem and two giant screens. Cadres — many in matching suits with stone-faced expressions — turn pages of text in near unison, a collective flutter that sounds like birds taking flight.

Officials said the military budget would rise about 7% this year, the slowest pace since 2010. Documents released at the opening session did not detail the amount of the defense budget, but a Finance Ministry official told the Associated Press it would reach $151 billion.

This suggests China has little intention of starting an arms race with the United States, where President Trump just recommended a 10% increase in military spending to $603 billion.

“Fundamentally, this is about the United States worrying that China could catch up and surpass the U.S. in its ability,” Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, told reporters on Saturday. “But in fact there is still a huge gap in ability between the U.S. and China, which is still a developing country.”

Li did not mention Trump in his report but said China stands for “peace and stability” in the face of “profound changes in the international political and economic landscape.”

He included vows to “work faster” to address air pollution caused by coal burning, to lower government debt, and to improve the environment for foreign investors.

“We will make our skies blue again,” he said.

As he spoke, Xi sat in the second row of the stage, directly in its center.

The calming tone comes months before a twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress, when five of the seven top leaders may step down. Analysts speculate Xi might maneuver to bend a retirement rule to ensure he stays in office when his term ends in 2022 — also the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding. He could open up that possibility this fall by keeping his longtime ally and anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan.

Unlike the National People’s Congress, the party congress is full of intrigue and uncertainty.

Chinese officials already are shuffling positions. Last month, they installed two men with ties to Xi as head of major economic agencies: Zhong Shan, a former deputy to Xi in eastern China, as commerce minister, and He Lifeng, who helped Xi with his One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative, as head of the National Development and Reform Commission.

Xi did not speak during the opening sessions, but on a Sunday panel he reiterated a message of economic globalization, one strikingly at odds with Trump’s isolationist agenda.

“The door of China’s opening up will not close,” he said, according to the official New China News Agency.

His repetition is not unintentional.

“Xi’s speeches and policy initiatives at the ‘two sessions’ will send important signals about how China will march toward what Xi called the ‘great dream of revitalizing the Chinese nation,’” the news agency said in an analysis of the event.

Even the nosebleed seats were full during Li’s kickoff speech. But by the end of the first hour, with a view of the glowing red star on the ceiling and the country’s top leaders below, many in the audience had started taking selfies.

Meyers is a special correspondent. Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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