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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 14:40 GMT
China begins leadership change
Jiang Zemin (L) and Hu Jintao
Jiang Zemin (L) is expected to remain influential
The annual meeting of China's parliament has opened for a session which is due to anoint a new generation of leaders to guide the world's most populous nation.

Almost 3,000 delegates to the largely ceremonial National People's Congress, or NPC, gathered amid tight security in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

They are almost certain to approve a series of top-level changes including the accession of Vice President Hu Jintao to the presidency in place of Jiang Zemin.

Do something about the nation's huge wealth gap before it causes large scale unrest
Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji

The meeting opened with a stark warning from Prime Minister Zhu Rongji - another leader due to step down - about the crisis of rural poverty.

The famously plain-speaking Mr Zhu warned that while the country's market reforms must continue, a growing wealth gap between the prosperous cities and the countryside could derail China's ongoing economic transformation.

The authorities have to "nip grassroots conflict in the bud, do something about the nation's huge wealth gap before it causes large scale unrest", the 75-year-old said in his work report to the NPC.

The economic restructuring has brought wrenching changes, including bankrupt state-owned companies and high unemployment.

Last spring the country saw its biggest public protests since 1989 when laid-off workers took to the streets of cities in China's ailing industrial north-east.

Approve leadership reshuffle
Approve government reports and restructuring plan
Appoint cabinet ministers, Supreme Court head and chief state prosecutor

"If we do not change these conditions, they will severely dampen farmers' enthusiasm, rock the foundations of agriculture and even threaten the entire national economy."

Mr Zhu said that a social security system experimented with in the north-eastern "rust belt" province of Liaoning could go nationwide.

China will meanwhile continue to aim for high growth. Mr Zhu set a target of 7% growth in 2003 - down from last year's 8% growth, but still ambitious.

It will be financed, the premier said, by issuing 140bn yuan ($16.9bn) through special long-term bonds, and priority will be given to construction projects which can help lift China's impoverished west out of destitution.

In what was effectively a farewell speech, Mr Zhu also highlighted his pet hate, endemic corruption, as a major problem, urging local officials not to embark on "image projects" for the sake of personal glory.

He also touched on the dispute with rival Taiwan, using more conciliatory language than in the past. In an apparent slip of the tongue he referred to China and Taiwan as "two countries", before correcting his words to "two sides".

Rubber stamp

In addition to listening to official work reports such as Mr Zhu's, the NPC will approve several changes in China's leadership during its two-week meeting.

All major political changes in China are generally decided far in advance by a tiny cabal of top Communist Party leaders, and thus the NPC acts as little more than a rubber stamp.

Delegate in front of the Great Hall of the People
Delegates from all over the country have gathered in Beijing
Mr Hu already took over from President Jiang as leader of the ruling Communist Party - China's effective top political post - late last year.

But President Jiang, 76, is nevertheless tipped to retain considerable influence. He will probably hold on to his powerful post as head of China's military, and has engineered the ascent of several key protégés to senior positions.

In addition to the promotion of 60-year-old Mr Hu as president, technocrat Wen Jiabao is set to take over from Mr Zhu as premier.

It is also widely thought that Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo will take over as head of the NPC.

He will replace the veteran politician Li Peng, a man still widely reviled in China for his role in ordering the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The NPC is also set to approve the streamlining of the government's bloated bureaucracy. The number of ministries will be cut from 29 to 21, according to state media.

The BBC's Holly Williams
"Mr Zhu has been the mastermind behind China's continuing market reforms"

China's mounting challenges
05 Mar 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Hu Jintao
05 Mar 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: China's new leadership
05 Mar 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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