March 4 sees the opening of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's Parliament. This event arouses strong interest in the official media but none among the general public, who regard it as a body with no power but an adjunct of the Communist Party which sets the agenda and determines the outcome. Beijing people refer to the nearly 3,000 NPC members as the 'three hands' - shaking hands, clapping hands and raising hands (to vote). But this year the meeting has an edge as people want to know the future of the NPC Chairman, Li Peng, 74 this year, who was Prime Minister for 10 years until he took this job in 1998, and is due to step down at the NPC session next year. Among Beijing people, he is the most unpopular politician because it was he that signed the martial law decree in May 1989 that led to a military crackdown on student-led protest in June that left hundreds dead and led to a nationwide campaign against those who were involved. Nevertheless, he enjoys strong support within the party, the military and the government, especially among conservatives and older people. Mr Li's long career in public life is supposed to end in March 2003, with his retirement as NPC chairman and from his post as a member of the standing committee of the ruling Politburo, at a party congress this autumn. He has held the Politburo position since November 1987, the longest of any of the seven members It is impossible to get official information on future personnel changes from an organisation as secretive as the Communist Party, while Mr Li himself regards the foreign media with contempt, seeing it as hostile and biased against him and China. So all we have to go on is the version of events according to the Beijing rumour mill, which has gone into overdrive in the months ahead of the congress. Mr Li is said to be unwilling to give up both posts unconditionally and to have demanded an amnesty for himself and his family from future civil or criminal prosecution and a promise that the verdict on the events in 1989 will never be reversed and he will not be held responsible for them. The Lis are popularly known as the 'energy family', because his two sons and daughter work in energy companies and are said to have gained financially from the family connection. His wife, Zhu Lin, is said by those who have met her to be a dragon lady with a fierce temper. She took the unusual step of having an interview published last December in the Legal Daily, the newspaper of the Ministry of Justice that is read by anti-corruption officials, saying that she did not have a personal beautician or cosmetician, did not own stocks or bonds and had not profited from any posts she holds or did hold in companies or charities. The only reason she would have published such a story was to refute accusations of all these things by enemies of her husband who are trying to force him to step down. More evidence of the opposition to Mr Li came in street demonstrations in December in Beijing by some of the 4,000 people who lost 500 million yuan (about US$61.3 million) between June 1997 and July 1998 by investing in a futures company called Xinguoda whose managers ran off with the money. The investors allege that one of Li's sons was involved and held banners saying 'Li Peng should return the money on behalf of his son'. On February 10, a right-wing Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, reported that Mr Li would succeed Jiang Zemin as president and on February 15 the Washington Times said that it was Mr Li who was responsible for ordering the installation of electronic bugs in Mr Jiang's presidential plane when it was being refitted in Texas last year. Few people in Beijing believe either of these stories. Asked about the plane, Li said on February 17 in Macau that he knew nothing about the story. In the arcane and secretive world of Chinese politics, it is impossible to confirm any of these stories. But what is clear is that the struggle over Mr Li's future and how history will judge him is under way in earnest. This struggle may persuade normally uninterested people to switch on their televisions during this NPC session and watch its chairman.