Opening acts in a year of change
When the curtain rises on the mainland's annual showpiece of political theatre next week, the real drama will be unfolding behind the scenes as the top leaders prepare for a once-in-a-decade power transition later this year.
Last year's annual sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) came at a politically sensitive time, with the Communist Party's leadership preoccupied with fears of a possible spread of the 'jasmine revolutions' that swept the Arab world.
This year's session of the NPC, the mainland's parliament, which opens on Monday, will be accompanied by an altogether different type of political sensitivity, with the generational leadership transition just six months away and with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao each beginning his final year in office.
The meetings are widely seen as a warm-up for the big show at the Communist Party's 18th congress in the autumn, and spotting the rising political stars will be a big sport for the media over the 10 days of gatherings.
The main event begins on Monday, when about 3,000 NPC delegates from every corner of the country gather in the Great Hall of the People, with attention devoted not so much on what their soon-to-be-retiring leaders say on stage so much as the furtive gossip and horse-trading among their successors in the wings.
'Behind the scenes, leadership changes will dominate the political agenda,' said Liu Kang, professor of Chinese studies at the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, and director of the China Research Centre, at Duke University.
The NPC will not choose the Communist Party's new leaders, but it will vote on who will take up government posts next year. Many NPC delegates, who are also senior party and government officials, could also continue to hold seats or get promotion to the party's upper ranks, either as full or alternate members of the 300-member decision-making Central Committee, the 25-member Politburo or the nine-man, innermost, all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, to fill the vacuum left by retiring officials.
More than a dozen new provincial party secretaries and governors will make their appearance on the stage at the NPC session, as many of them are tipped for a place in the new party leadership.
'Rising political stars or those tipped for promotion at the upcoming party congress will use the occasion to gain political support through a public relations offensive, and the traditional way is to use the occasion to wine, dine and karaoke to make friends,' said Zhang Ming, a professor of political sciences at Renmin University.
Professor Liu said: 'The NPC is a crucial stage for the retiring leaders to cement their political legacies and the newcomers to burnish their credentials.'
Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a Hong Kong commentator and veteran journalist who has covered the NPC for many years, said that overseas media would focus on several rising political stars, including Guangdong party chief Wang Yang and his rival counterpart from Chongqing, Bo Xilai. Wang and Bo, the most prominent candidates for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, have been engaged for months in a rare public debate over ideology.
China watchers and overseas media will be searching for any clues that would suggest that the recent downfall of Bo's former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, would have any impact on Bo's political fortune. The detention last month of Wang, a Chongqing vice-mayor, the municipality's former police chief and a key Bo ally has been seen by some as a setback for Bo's promotion prospects.
Publicly, the NPC meeting will address the grand tasks facing China's current and future leaders.
At the centre will be Wen, 70, who is already a lame duck since he is expected to step down from his party post in about six months' time and to give up the premiership at the next NPC, in March next year, to pave the way for his successor, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang. It will be Wen's last government work report, essentially a state-of-the-union address, which will kick off the NPC meeting.
His policy speech will be one of his last opportunities to remedy his shortcomings in administering the economy.
And it will also be his last all-important annual news conference - a rare event for any Chinese leader and one often attended by hundreds of journalists from big domestic and foreign media organisations - that will cap the legislative season.
The televised briefing has become one of the most watched news events on China's political calendar, and a key forum for the top leader to solicit public support for his policies.
Analysts expect Wen will use the occasion to burnish his legacy by lauding his government's progress, and to defend his record against accusations that he has generally failed to live up to expectations.
Wen came to power amid great hopes for reform, but China watchers and critics within and outside the party say that he reached few of the goals he set himself when he was appointed to his current position nine years ago. These include curbing rising consumer inflation and skyrocketing house prices, promoting education and medical services, narrowing the widening income gap and cracking down on increasingly widespread corruption, improving the environment and food safety.
Many of the current lawmakers will also be assembling in Beijing for their final parliamentary session before being turfed out to make way for the newcomers. Some of the NPC delegates are, therefore, likely to be more outspoken than previously, as they are expected to seek a final chance to express their discontent with the government's performance and policy.
'Over the past years, the NPC has increasingly become a forum where the delegates express their views on social and economic issues,' said Mingchun Sun, chief China economist with Daiwa Securities.
In his final year as premier, Wen faces a race against time to deal with all those urgent economic and social issues as the world's second-largest economy faces unprecedented challenges ahead.
Leaders have recently warned that the country faces an 'extremely grim and complicated' global outlook, worse than in 2008 when the United States subprime mortgage crisis spread globally.
In his latest weekly commentary on the upcoming parliamentary session, China International Capital chief economist Peng Wensheng said that 'economic issues will no doubt continue to be the most important topic at the NPC, especially in the context of slow global economic recovery, the high level of uncertainty abroad, and slowing economic growth at home.'
Dr Banny Lam, associate director and global economist at CCB International Securities, said the 'NPC is aiming for domestic stability given the shaky global economy and the unresolved EU debt crisis'.
Peng said the government's central task would be to avoid a hard landing and that hot topics to be debated would include structural tax cuts, adjusting the income distribution system, land reform, resource pricing reform, and a further reduction of entry barriers for private capital.
Lu Ting, China economist with Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, said: 'The NPC is a unique place for markets to observe concerns, goals, plans and ambitions of China's top politicians and elites.'
Sun, of Daiwa Securities, said he expected the focus of this year's NPC to be all about 'urging an acceleration of reforms in many areas'.
Journalist Lau said policy debate and reform would be a matter for political bargaining between interest groups, which would not only test Hu's and Wen's political wisdom and their ability to tackle the urgent and long-standing issues, but would also decide whether they could achieve their ultimate goal of maintaining political stability and harmony at a sensitive time of power in transition.