CHINA'S Prime Minister, Mr Li Peng, looks set for another term in office as Communist Party authorities wrap up the final preparations for the first session of the Eighth National People's Congress (NPC), which opens in Beijing on March 15. But the political stocks of his only challenger for the position, Vice-Premier Mr Zhu Rongji, are also rising, and sources said they could not rule out the possibility of a ''drastic last-minute change''. The complete list of candidates for top government positions to be presented to the NPC will be finalised at the Second Plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, to be convened this month or in early March. The sources said another five-year term for Mr Li seemed virtually certain, as NPC authorities had already scheduled a press conference for the prime minister after his ''re-election'' at the end of the congress. They said Mr Li, who broke with tradition by avoiding the press at the last NPC in March 1992, would meet the estimated 1,000 foreign and local journalists covering the session. It was likely the second-term prime minister would appear with the four or more vice-premiers to be endorsed by the NPC. The latter will include Senior Vice-Premier Mr Zhu, Vice-Premier Mr Zou Jiahua, and Mr Li Lanqing and Mr Qian Qichen, who are expected to be made vice-premiers. During the course of the congress, which will last 12 to 14 days, there will be at least three other press conferences. There will be a session on foreign affairs to be chaired by Mr Qian, and one on economic reform and foreign trade to be hosted by Mr Li Lanqing and the Minister for Restructuring the Economy, Mr Chen Jinhua. The last press conference will be on development in areas populated by ethnic minorities, which will probably be given by the leaders of the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions. The other major positions to be endorsed at the NPC include the state president, the vice-president, and the members of the State Central Military Commission (SCMC), a largely ceremonial body. Party General Secretary Mr Jiang Zemin is considered the only candidate for both state president and SCMC chairman. The out-going chairman of the China International Trust and Investment Corp, Mr Rong Yiren, is the front-runner for vice-president. Politburo members Mr Qiao Shi and Mr Tian Jiyun will become respectively the chairman and the executive vice-chairman of the eighth NPC. It is likely that Mr Zhu, who has the strong support of patriarch Mr Deng Xiaoping, will be made senior vice-premier with overall responsibility for the economy. Western diplomats in Beijing said Mr Zhu had recently also secured the blessings of conservative elder Mr Chen Yun. ''Even Chen Yun has praised Zhu's ability in running the economy and in introducing reforms,'' a diplomatic source said. ''In a recent speech, Chen gave Zhu credit for acting fast enough to clamp down on inflation and on excessive investments in new projects.'' Aside from personnel issues, analysts said the Second Plenum of the Central Committee would make final corrections to Mr Li Peng's Government Work Report to the NPC. ''Li will sum up the experience of market reforms in the past five years and lay down general outlines for further economic liberalisation in the coming five years,'' a source said. He said the prime minister's report would largely reflect recent instructions from Mr Deng. While in Shanghai last month, Mr Deng underscored the importance of pressing ahead with high-speed development and market reforms despite worries about the economy overheating. ''Li Peng will stress the need to proceed with market reforms in spite of efforts to cool down the overheated economy,'' a source said. ''Bowing to Deng Xiaoping's instructions, he has toned down his observations on inflation and on other signs of overheating. ''He would still recommend a relatively high annual growth rate of around nine per cent.'' But cadres who have read the early drafts said the prime minister's report, which is divided into seven parts, would not sketch a bold blueprint for speeding up the transition to a market economy. They said Mr Li would concentrate on consolidating existing reforms, especially ways to restructure the chronically inefficient state enterprises. Areas which are said to have contributed to economic overheating, including the issue of stocks and real estate, would not rank high on the prime minister's list of priorities. Instead, he would appeal to local authorities to better heed the central government's efforts to control excessive investments and to ''improve macro-level adjustments and controls''. Pledging to further open up the China market by lowering tariffs and other measures, the prime minister would make a pitch to Western governments to help facilitate China's re-entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Mr Li would also devote one long section to boosting agriculture, particularly the need to ensure that investment in agrarian activities does not lag behind industry and commerce.