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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 02:20 GMT
Delegates gather for China's NPC
by Daniel Griffiths
BBC News Beijing correspondent

Row of red flags flutter outside the Great Hall of the People
The Red Flag is flying but Congress may pass private property laws for the first time

The meeting of China's legislature - the National People's Congress - is an annual ritual that takes place in the political heart of the country.

Delegates gather at the Great Hall of the People, on Tiananmen Square. Across the road is the Forbidden City and close by is Zhongnanhai, the home of China's top leaders.

The NPC has been meeting here since the late 1950s when Mao ordered that a suitably large, Stalinist-style grand building be constructed to house the event.

Nearly three thousand delegates will attend the NPC. They come from right across China, many wearing the traditional costumes of their region.

They are not elected. They are chosen by the Communist Party and that really goes to the heart of what the National People's Congress is and does.

The NPC meets just once a year. It has no real power and is a symbolic organisation that serves as a rubber stamp to endorse the policies of the ruling Communist Party.

China's National People's Congress
The Great Hall was designed to play host to the annual event

But that does mean it offers a guide to the issues at the top of the government's agenda.

This year, the NPC will debate issues such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor, between the cities and the countryside, and how to provide for the country's growing number of elderly.

These are the sorts of issues that are leading to rising discontent in many parts of China.

Last year, the government admitted that there had been an explosion across the country in the number of protests about social concerns.

The fear of two Chinas emerging - one well off, the other poor - has got the country's top leaders worried. They fear that widespread discontent could threaten the rule of the Communist Party.

The main theme of Hu Jintao's presidency has been to build what he calls a "harmonious society". So perhaps there should be little surprise that these issues are high on the agenda for the NPC.

Soldier picks his way through the snow in Tiananmen Square
The NPC has already announced that military spending will rise

But China's leaders are also keen to take steps that will ensure the country's continued economic prosperity. That is likely to be reflected during this session of the NPC.

The delegates are expected to pass a landmark law that would protect private property for the first time - an important step in the Communist Party's journey towards a market economy.

And it is thought likely that they will agree tax legislation that will do away with old laws that favoured foreign companies over domestic ones.

The Congress will also be watched closely ahead of a major meeting of the Communist Party this autumn. Most analysts expect President Hu to carry out a wide-ranging reshuffle to consolidate his power.

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