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China’s premier Li Keqiang cut the nation’s growth target to “around” 7% on Thursday, reiterating the need to pursue reform as development slows and the likelihood of tougher times ahead for the world’s second largest economy.

Authorities have been stressing the need to carry out a transition from the years of breakneck, double-digit growth to a more balanced, mature model with frequent repetitions of their “new normal” mantra, used by Li several times in his speech in Beijing. The country narrowly missed its target of around 7.5% for this year, recording an official growth figure of 7.4%.

 “With downward pressure on China’s economy building and deep-seated problems in development surfacing, the difficulties we are to encounter in the year ahead may be even more formidable than those of last year,” Li warned the opening session of the National People’s Congress, the tightly controlled legislature, as he delivered the government’s work report.

 “Systemic, institutional and structural problems have become ‘tigers in the road’ holding up development.”

Many analysts believe China will miss the new target, too. Yuan Gangming, of the China and World Economy Research Center at Tsinghua University, said: “I predict the GDP growth this year will be below 7% and the real economic downturn will be worse than last year.

 “The good side is, there’s an upbeat and young atmosphere in the NPC report, probably because the new leader is younger and more likely to explore in an innovative way. For example, he mentioned that the foundation underlying all our efforts to build the country is common people getting rich.

“He also mentioned the importance of supporting private sectors such as IT and new energy...The imbalance of different sectors has to be broken and we’ve paid too much attention to state-owned enterprises, which is ridiculous. I’m glad the government has realized that and is willing to do some change.”

Economic commentator Wu Jiaxiang described the report as signalling “season two of Likonomics”, though Li has been an unusually low profile premier.

He said: “After two year of non-stimulus and deleveraging treatment, China’s economic health is restored and hence we are seeing more public investment in this year’s work report. “Reform provides the necessary drive for development.”

The annual meeting in Beijing is accompanied by a session of a political consultative body, where celebrity delegates such as basketball star Yao Ming sprinkle a little stardust over the staid proceedings. The biggest surprise at the NPC so far has been seeing tuxedoed men pour the tea for leaders, instead of the usual waitresses.

Neither body is exactly known for its independence of spirit. The meetings allow the party to ensure that officials and business people are on the right page, and to gauge their mood.

After two years, the most striking aspect of this administration has been the consolidation of the party’s power and Xi’s personal authority. His anti-corruption crackdown is in full swing and, like his talent for folksy language and popular themes, appears to have played well with the public. It is also intended in part to pave the way for reforms by weakening vested interests.

But Steve Tsang, head of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, said: “We see him already being more powerful than his predecessors at this stage, but he cannot afford to relent or the fightback will start.

 “We should be seeing the leadership really focusing on what they want to do with power and the reinvigorated capacity of the party for delivering public services and better management of the economy, but we haven’t seen very much in concrete terms of what they will be doing...[Xi] is locked into this process and that itself causes distraction from what he wants to achieve with the ‘new normal’ and ‘four comprehensives’.”

The latter is the latest official catchphrase, set out by Xi and lauded by state media as a brilliant guide to China’s future: comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform, governing the country according to law and applying strictness in governing the party. The party is fond of political enumeration; previous examples include Hu Jintao’s “eight honours and eight shames”, Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” and, much further back, Hua Guofeng’s “two whatevers”.

Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said that the leadership had been focused on maintaining “the balance between deepening reforms and rolling out anti-corruption campaigns/maintaining stability, and the balance between the left and the right”.

Leftists have drawn renewed hope from aspects of Xi’s leadership, including fulminations against western values. Fan Jinggang, a leading neo-Maoist, said the general political landscape was improving although rightists still dominated public opinion.

He praised Xi’s push to strengthen the party’s ideological work and said his “mass line” campaign and crackdown on corruption had some similarities with Maoism in understanding the need to involve the masses in the party, rather than just relying on the elites. But Xi has made it clear that he has no intention of handing more power to the public.

 “Not involving and mobilising the masses [in these drives] is a shame as it fails to deliver a satisfactory result to the campaigns, and it’s also why we say the campaigns to a degree differ from Maoism’s ideals and strategy,” said Fan.