Wen also pledged to protect China’s “territorial integrity” as the government laid down another double-digit rise in military spending to modernise the world’s largest standing army, at a time of mounting tensions in Asia.
In his final major act after a decade in charge of day-to-day government, Wen delivered a “work report” to about 3,000 delegates from across the country at the opening of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
The NPC is meeting for nearly two weeks in Beijing and will seal a power transfer to Li Keqiang as Wen’s successor, and Communist Party supremo Xi Jinping as state president.
Wen bowed deeply to the representatives arrayed under a giant red star in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, some in ethnic dress, before starting his farewell speech, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes.
The premier began with a list of achievements during his time, among them manned spaceflight, China’s first aircraft carrier, its own satellite navigation system, a high-speed rail network, and hosting the 2008 Olympics.
But public concern on China’s lively social media scene is mounting about a range of problems including corruption, pollution and skewed economic growth as the country’s rich-poor chasm widens.
“We should unwaveringly combat corruption, strengthen political integrity… and ensure that officials are honest, government is clean and political affairs are handled with integrity,” Wen said.
The wealth of party leaders at all levels has become a burning issue in China, with foreign media reports last year focussing on the riches accrued by the families of Xi and Wen themselves.
Outside the hall, ordinary citizens were sceptical about the government’s promises.
“If delegates do not care for the people then there is never any chance of progress with political reform in the future,” said a 60-year-old woman surnamed Lu, who was on her way to one of the capital’s parks.
Another pensioner, Xian Lan, added: “What is the point of all these wasteful, expensive meetings when there are so many poor people in China?”
China’s economy is a key driver of the global recovery, but has struggled in the face of weakness at home and in overseas markets, with Europe assailed by its debt crisis and US growth remaining anaemic.
It grew 7.8 percent in 2012, its worst performance for 13 years, but normally exceeds the target set at the NPC.
“We deem it necessary and appropriate to set this year’s target for economic growth at about 7.5 percent, a goal that we will have to work hard to attain,” Wen said.
“China is still under considerable inflationary pressure this year,” he added, setting this year’s inflation target at 3.5 percent, after it came in at 2.6 percent in 2012.
A separate government document laid down a 10.7 percent rise in defence spending to 720.2 billion yuan ($115.7 billion) in 2013.
China’s military budgets have risen steadily in recent years, and experts say the actual totals are usually substantially higher than the publicly announced figures.
Wen’s voice grew to its loudest when he pledged to “resolutely uphold China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity” — comments that were met with loud applause.
Japan, which has the fiercest territorial rows with China, “intends to continue watching China’s defence policy and its military strength closely”, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was quoted by Kyodo News as saying.
The NPC only passes measures pre-approved by party leaders, including a reorganisation of government bureaucracy that will see major ministerial changes, likely to include the abolition of the much-maligned railways ministry.
It may also address China’s “re-education through labour” system, which sees petty offenders sent to labour camps without trial and has come under fire for abuse by local governments seeking to quash dissent. But Wen did not mention the subject.
Leaders must start meeting the public’s raised expectations, say analysts, or risk exacerbating the mounting discontent about corruption, inequality, pollution and other woes.
“They are trying to improve the system of governance to keep the party in power,” said Scott Kennedy, Beijing-based director of the Indiana University research centre for Chinese Politics and Business.