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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 00:51 GMT
China parliament fosters debate
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Beijing

Delegates to consultative body of the congress
The NPC is a major part of the Chinese political year
The annual 10-day session of China's parliament is drawing to a close on Tuesday, with analysts detecting more internal debate than in previous years.

The National People's Congress (NPC) is usually seen as a body that formally endorses decisions made by the leaders.

This year there appears to have been more debate and disagreement as China addresses some of the problems inherent in its breakneck economic growth.

The new tone was set at the NPC's opening by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

He highlighted the leadership's growing concerns with problems in rural China, the vast hinterland increasingly left behind in the headlong rush for growth.

He spoke repeatedly of "the new Socialist countryside" - promising a return to free education there, an increase in health care and more government spending on rural infrastructure.

It is debatable how much practical difference these measures will really make. But the shift in rhetoric was clear.

Delayed law

This was a gesture of reassurance to those disillusioned with the way China is changing, even nostalgic about the past.

This certainly is not a turning away from the path of economic reform.

But it could reflect a pause for thought within the Chinese leadership, a recognition of the need to consolidate as China addresses problems which are fast becoming acute.

The wealth gap, rural discontent and the need to protect the environment are all top of the list of concerns.

The new willingness to admit these problems is also strengthening the hand of those with misgivings about China's direction.

Normally, the tone of the NPC is one of celebration, characterised by positive statements about China's successes and inspirational rhetoric.

Some analysts now sense greater internal debate, as more Leftist ideologues and advisors in the Communist Party seize the chance to warn of the dangers inherent in moves towards capitalism.

The inability of the NPC to pass an important law on property ownership is hailed as evidence of that.

Before the NPC started, its passing was seen as little more than a formality.

In fact, it has been further delayed - a casualty, some say, to more robust internal debate.

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