Before People’s Congress in China, Vows of Change and Raised Hopes

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China's new Communist Party leaders are hoping that their annual legislative meeting, which begins Tuesday, will help persuade a skeptical public that they are serious about cleaning up pollution and a political elite stained by corruption.

The two weeks of tightly controlled political theater known as the National People's Congress rarely strays from a stolid procession of speeches, news conferences and invariably pro-government votes, all devised to present a united and untroubled public face.

Last year, however, the script was challenged by a divisive scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the combative party chief of Chongqing, whose fall unleashed months of revelations about murder, corruption and political infighting. Mr. Bo pilloried his foes during a news conference at the congress, was publicly censured by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the end of the meeting and then, a day after the congress ended, was dismissed from his Chongqing post.

Most analysts agree that the proceedings this year will ignore the plight of Mr. Bo, who is being detained awaiting prosecution on charges of corruption, abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

This year, the party's new top leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, have paved the way for the 13-day session with vows to end flagrant privileges and self-enrichment by officials and their families. They have also vowed to create a more efficient government, and reduce the acrid smog that has enveloped Beijing and other northern Chinese cities for weeks this winter.

"They've already taken many steps that have raised hopes among ordinary people — now we're looking for signs that the hopes can be satisfied," said Deng Yuwen, an editor for The Study Times, a weekly newspaper published by the Central Party School in Beijing. "The congress won't have any breakthroughs, but it can indicate where and how fast the leaders want to take things."

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This congress will be the last for President Hu Jintao and Mr. Wen, the prime minister, who both retire at its end after a decade in their jobs. Mr. Wen will give his final work report to the congress on Tuesday.

On the final day of the congress, delegates will vote in a new government leadership dominated by Mr. Xi as president and Mr. Li as prime minister. The transfer of party leadership posts took place in November, when Mr. Xi became general secretary.

The nearly 3,000 congress delegates at the annual gathering are selected through a process that rewards loyalists; about 70 percent of the delegates are Communist Party members, and many are officials. Few dare defy the leadership's will by voting against proposals or abstaining from ballots, and the congress has never voted down a proposal put before it.

The meeting is likely to approve a modest restructuring of government ministries and agencies. Over past months, analysts and well-connected businesspeople have said that Mr. Li wanted a drastic reorganization, to create enlarged ministries for financial regulation, environmental protection and other areas.

(Read More: China Eyes 2013 Economic Growth of 7.5%)

But recent Chinese news reports have described a more limited plan that is likely to include folding the scandal-laden and deeply indebted Ministry of Railways into the Ministry of Transport, and strengthening food and drug safety regulators to bring greater oversight of industries that are constantly hit by consumer safety concerns.

The apparent scaling back of the plans for administrative changes reflects how difficult it will be for the leadership to deliver on promises to free up the economy from state-owned enterprises and fight corruption, while still preserving single-party rule, said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. "In all these issues, there's the same basic problem of deep distrust between the people and the government," Mr. Zheng said. "Because there is so much distrust, the government is reluctant to make deep reforms. What they call reforms turns out be reassigning powers within government, not giving up powers to society. That's not real reform — and then people feel increasingly frustrated."

Reformists have been hoping that the new leadership would demonstrate a greater commitment to China's Constitution, and would promote a more independent judiciary. They have also been agitating for an end to the country's notoriously abusive re-education-through-labor system, which allows the police to imprison drug addicts, prostitutes and political offenders for up to three years without trial.

"The reeducation-through-labor system, to a certain extent, makes citizens live in fear," Dai Zhongchuan, a delegate and law professor, told a government-run news portal on Monday.

Many analysts, however, say such initiatives are unlikely to be embraced by China's new leaders, any time soon.

Party insiders have said that some officials likely to be promoted at the congress include Zhang Gaoli as executive deputy prime minister, and Li Yuanchao, a former party organization chief, as vice president. Wang Yang, the former head of Guangdong Province in southern China, is likely to succeed Wang Qishan as a deputy prime minister in charge of financial policy.

Mr. Bo was seen until last year as a contender for promotion into the central leadership, but his prospects capsized after the police chief of Chongqing fled to a U.S. consulate and then surrendered to Chinese investigators, raising allegations that Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a British businessman and then sought to cover up the crime.

Ms. Gu was jailed in August for the murder. Mr. Bo is likely to face trial and conviction over the cover-up and other misdeeds.