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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 22:50 GMT
China's parliament: Power to the people?

By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Beijing

For 50 years Shen Jilan has made an annual 600-km trek from her home in Xigou, a poverty-stricken mountainous village in Shanxi province, to attend the National People's Congress in Beijing.

The sprightly 75-year-old peasant is the longest serving member of China's legislature. To get to Beijing for the first session in 1954, she walked part of the way, as well as travelling by donkey.

Delegate in front of the Great Hall of the People
The NPC is a chance for delegates from all over China to voice opinion

"The first time I came, I didn't dare say a word," she reminisced. "I only wanted to see Chairman Mao. I thought it was the greatest honour to be the people's representative. I was so excited I couldn't eat."

This year's Congress session, which opens on Friday, is the first since the new leadership came to power.

It will give important insights into the direction they are steering the country.

The National People's Congress, or NPC, has always been seen as a rubber stamp parliament.

But Ms Shen feels the role of deputies is gradually becoming less ceremonial and more practical.

The NPC's role is to pass legislation that has already been approved by the Communist party, but she feels its importance is as a channel for the opinions of ordinary people.

"People's delegates must represent the people and speak for them, and do things for them," she said.

The first time I came, I didn't dare say a word
NPC delegate Shen Jilan

"We feel the NPC is getting better and better, and its legal processes are improving. So we, the people's delegates, are becoming more and more powerful. The NPC is not an empty organisation."

This year she wants to reflect what she see as ordinary people's greatest concern - corruption.

Her feelings are backed up by one online survey, which asked citizens what issues they would like the legislature to tackle. More than 85% of respondents said their key worry was corruption, and another 60% said they wanted regional wealth disparities to be on the agenda.

Delegates are also beginning to tap into modern technology to find out what topics people want them to raise.

Zhou Xiaoguang from Yiwu city in Zhejiang province paid around $1,000 to place television adverts to canvas opinion.

She is an entrepreneur, who runs a business producing diamante jewellery, and therefore could afford this expensive move.

"I understand doing business and industrial things, but I'm not that familiar with other areas like peasants, education and healthcare," she said.

"If I went myself to ask people, my sources of information wouldn't be extensive enough... So in my eyes, it really was worth it, because I can better understand the broad masses of the people."

Other delegates have set up telephone hotlines and this year people can text-message deputies as they sit in the Great Hall of the People.

Jiang Wenran, of the University of Alberta, said there had been calls from academics and journalists to step up the NPC's function as a supervisory body, and he believed delegates were heeding these calls.

"Delegates, especially from local levels, are now trying to make a more autonomous appearance in these meetings. They're saying we've not just come here to vote, but to put on the agenda certain things that we are concerned about," he said.

As deputies grow in confidence, there is a feeling there is more room for criticism of government policy.

Justin Lin Yifu, a prominent economist who sits on the advisory body the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, told the BBC that delegates do now feel they are able to speak out freely against government policy.

Chinese policeman in Tiananmen Square
The authorities still work hard to keep dissent at bay

"The current government are willing to listen to different opinions," he said. "They encourage people to speak, to reflect and also to provide all kind of information, all kinds of judgements."

But that only goes so far. Deputies have in the past cast negative votes to express displeasure, especially over issues such as corruption, but no measure has ever been defeated.

One vote which will sail through this year will enshrine the political thought of former President Jiang Zemin into the constitution.

Clumsily named the Three Represents, his theories provide an ideological basis for allowing businessmen into the party.

Changing tide

Phil Deans from London University said it marked another turning point for the Chinese Communist Party.

"Chinese communism has always been an atypical variant of Marxism Leninism," said Mr Deans.

"But I think the direction it's moving, in the total marketisation of the Chinese society, the party has all but completely abandoned its historical socialist mission.

"And the Three Represents campaign which has gained prominence at the moment is about reinventing the Chinese communist party as a bourgeois party, one that represents the middle classes rather than the workers and the peasants."

And in a move that will please the middle classes, deputies will this session boost legal protection for private property.

Nonetheless, on Tiananmen Square plain clothes policemen are out in force, watching to stop protesters demonstrating over issues such as the seizure of their property.

And overseas human rights groups estimate that around 200 dissidents are being monitored.

That such efforts are taken to prevent their voices from being heard - even by the representatives of the people - is a sign that the changes afoot are still only small steps.

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