China's parliament, the National People's Congress, convenes next week to finalize a sweeping leadership transition that began last November. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other top Communist Party officials will be replaced by a new generation of politicians, who face tough challenges such as widespread unemployment, China's growing gap between rich and poor, and a mountain of bad debts.
This year's National People's Congress meeting is expected to complete the first orderly transfer of power in China since Communist rule began in 1949. At the end of the two-week congress on March 18, some 3,000 delegates will approve a new president, prime minister, parliament chief, and other top leaders.
Vice President Hu Jintao is expected to replace Jiang Zemin as president, although Mr. Jiang appears set to remain head of the powerful Central Military Commission. Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is tapped to succeed Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in overseeing economic reforms for the next five years. And Vice Prime Minister Wu Bangguo is expected to inherit the post of parliament chief from current party elder, Li Peng.
All three new leaders were promoted to senior Communist Party positions at the 16th party congress in Beijing last November.
China observers say this next generation of leaders is likely to emphasize the plight of the poor and the dispossessed much more than previous governments.
Wu Guoguang, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says China's entry into the World Trade Organization and rapid dismantling of its planned economy have caused great hardship for many. The closure of inefficient state enterprises has thrown millions out of work and market reforms have led to a yawning gap between rich and poor.
Mr. Wu says incoming leaders are anxious to demonstrate their solidarity with farmers and laid-off workers, and he expects themes such as unemployment and poverty relief to dominate the upcoming congress. He points out that in the past few months, Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen have made frequent, high-profile visits to China's remote, underdeveloped regions.
Delegates to the congress are likely to discuss how to create millions of new jobs; how to ease the tax burden on rural residents; and how to stimulate growth in backward provinces by spending more on infrastructure projects and education.
The government will also debate plans to streamline its bloated bureaucracy, merge different ministries, further reform its financial sector, and reduce bad loans at state banks.