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BEIJING (AP) — China's government promised sweeping reforms Wednesday to promote sustainable growth in its slowing economy by opening state-dominated industries to private investment, making its banks more market-oriented and encouraging consumer spending.

In his first annual policy speech as China's top economic official, Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing will encourage competition, ease exchange rate controls and improve access to credit for productive businesses.

Li's pledges were in line with Communist Party plans issued in November that call for promoting market forces and domestic consumption to replace a model based on exports and investment that delivered three decades of explosive growth but has run out of steam.

"We need to make sure the market plays a decisive role," said Li in a nationally televised speech to China's ceremonial legislature. He promised to "break mental shackles and vested interests" — a reference to possible resistance from state companies that might lose subsidies and monopolies.

Entrepreneurs and investors are watching the annual meeting of the National People's Congress for details of how the party will carry out its November pledge. Beijing has issued a flurry of minor changes such as simplifying processes for registering new businesses but has yet to take action on major tasks such as overhauling the state-run banking system.

Despite pledges of reform, the ruling party made clear the limits to possible change in its November plan by declaring that state ownership will remain the core of the economy.

The changes come as the ruling party tries to steer China to cleaner, more energy-efficient growth based on service industries and technology following the past decade's blistering expansion.

Growth last year tumbled to a two-decade low of 7.7 percent, due largely to government curbs imposed to cool a lending and investment boom. It was barely half of 2007's explosive 14.2 percent rate.

Li announced an official growth target of 7.5 percent for this year. That was unchanged from last year's target and in line with growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and private sector analysts.

Li promised an array of changes in banking and finance that reform advocates say are essential to making the economy more efficient and productive.

Banks will be given more control over lending and interest rates, the premier said. That would allow profitable companies to compete for credit by paying higher rates, possibly channeling more money to entrepreneurs who generate most of China's new jobs and wealth but are mostly unable to get loans from the state-run system. It also might boost rates paid on savings, putting more money in the pockets of Chinese families and encouraging consumer spending.

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers a work report during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China, Wednesday, March 5.

(AP)

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