China on Sunday set a modest gross domestic product growth target for 2023 at around 5 percent after missing its goal last year due to the economic fallout from its now-ended "zero-COVID" policy.

The target figure, which is slightly down from approximately 5.5 percent in 2022, was unveiled at the opening of an annual session of parliament. Last year, the world's second-biggest economy registered just a 3.0 percent expansion from the 2021 figure.

Photo taken March 5, 2023, shows the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Kyodo)

It was one of the slowest paces of growth in several decades, caused in large part by stringent antivirus measures involving quarantines and lockdowns and a subsequent explosion of COVID infections that occurred upon their abrupt withdrawal late last year.

China also announced it will increase its military spending in 2023 to 1.55 trillion yuan ($224 billion), a 7.2 percent rise from last year, according to a budget report delivered at the National People's Congress session.

The rate of growth was slightly faster than the 7.1 percent year-on-year rise in 2022 and marked the eighth consecutive year in which the increase was less than 10 percent. China's 2023 military spending will be some 4.5-fold larger than Japan's defense budget of 6.82 trillion yen ($50 billion) for the fiscal year starting April.

At the first National People's Congress session since leader Xi Jinping started a norm-breaking third five-year term as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party last October, China's top leadership is expected to map out measures to spur domestic demand and boost the economic recovery.

"This year, it is essential to prioritize economic stability and pursue progress while ensuring stability," outgoing Premier Li Keqiang said as he delivered a government report on policy directions for 2023 to nearly 3,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

He pointed to the importance of expanding domestic demand, saying, "We should give priority to the recovery and expansion of consumption."

The premier indicated the government will boost spending to bolster the economy, with a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3 percent projected for this year, up 0.2 point from the previous year. "We should enhance the intensity and effectiveness of our proactive fiscal policy," Li said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attend the opening of the first session of the 14th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of People on March 5, 2023, in Beijing. (Getty/Kyodo)

As for China's fight against COVID-19, Li said Xi's leadership has "placed the people and their lives above all else" and said the Chinese people have "pulled through with fortitude and resilience and secured a major and decisive victory."

The premier said Beijing should now ensure its COVID response is "well-conceived, more targeted, and more effective" with an emphasis on prevention and treatment for the elderly, children and people with underlying medical conditions while ensuring access to medicines and medical services.

On Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing regards as its own, Li said the government should "take resolute steps" to oppose its independence and advance the process of peaceful reunification.

"As we Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family bound by blood, we should advance economic and cultural exchanges and cooperation," he said.

Communist-led China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 due to a civil war. Beijing regards the island as a renegade province to be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

In the face of intensifying friction between China and the United States over Taiwan and other issues, Li said in the report the country's armed forces should fully implement Xi's thinking on strengthening the military by intensifying training and boosting combat preparedness.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington grew over Taiwan following then U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island last August.

Gist of Chinese reports released for annual parliamentary session


-- sets economic growth target of around 5 percent for 2023.

-- plans to increase military spending by 7.2 percent on year in 2023 to 1.55 trillion yuan ($224 billion).

-- says its people have "pulled through with fortitude and resilience and secured a major and decisive victory in the fight against COVID-19."

-- vows to take resolute steps to oppose "Taiwan independence" and advance the process of "peaceful reunification" with the island.

-- vows to enhance the intensity and effectiveness of proactive fiscal policy, with a deficit-to-gross domestic product ratio of 3 percent projected for this year, up 0.2 point from the previous year.

-- vows to fully implement President Xi Jinping's thinking on strengthening the military by intensifying training and boosting combat preparedness.

A day before the opening of the session, Wang Chao, spokesman for the parliament, defended an increase of China's military spending at a press conference, saying the growth rate has been "relatively moderate" and "reasonable."

The spokesman said Saturday the increase is needed for China to fulfill its responsibility as a major power. "The modernization of the Chinese military will not pose a threat to any country," Wang said, adding it will help maintain regional stability and world peace.

Xi, who became the party general secretary in 2012 and the country's president in 2013, is set to secure a third term as president, and his close aide Li Qiang, a former Shanghai party boss, is certain to succeed Premier Li Keqiang, who will retire after serving two five-year terms.

In 2018, China removed the two-term limit for the president from its Constitution, essentially enabling Xi to retain power for life.

Li Qiang is ranked No. 2 in the Communist Party's highest decision-making body -- the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee. The current National People's Congress session is scheduled to run through March 13.

China's GDP growth target for 2023 compares with a 5.2 percent expansion projected by the International Monetary Fund in its update of the World Economic Outlook report released in late January, citing the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

The IMF said a deepening slump in China's real estate market is a major source of vulnerability, in addition to weakening business dynamism and slow progress on structural reforms.

As the population of mainland China in 2022 shrank for the first time in 61 years amid a continued fall in the birthrate and a rapidly aging society, the premier underlined the need for Beijing to "refine supporting policies on childbirth."

He explained that support measures, including a three-child policy, have been introduced. China's population has been graying due largely to its "one-child policy" which was introduced in 1979 and scrapped in 2016.

Although China drastically eased its strict antivirus measures last December, journalists covering the session of parliament must quarantine at a designated hotel and take a PCR test.

A general view of the Great Hall of the People during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's speech in the opening of the first session of the 14th National People's Congress on March 5, 2023, in Beijing. (Getty/Kyodo)