China's parliament, the National People's Congress, convenes in Beijing this week, and the country will complete its biggest shuffle of top leadership since the 1970's. The NPC is dismissed by some as a rubber-stamp institution that does the bidding of the ruling Communist Party, but others see it as a valuable conduit for bringing public opinion to senior leaders.

The annual meeting of China's National People's Congress brings almost 3,000 delegates to the capital. In theory, the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and the armed forces elect delegates for five-year terms. In reality, the Communist Party decides who will be a delegate and those delegates never seriously challenge the party.

The NPC acts as a mechanism through which the party hears the views of the enormously diverse population. As such, some view the NPC as China's rehearsal for real democracy.

"One can look at the NPC and find various ways in which it plays a role in helping information travel from the provinces, from society and up to the leadership, which some might see as a democratic process - but it clearly plays a role as a? channel for upward information," says David Zweig, a professor of Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. China's constitution says state power belongs to the people, who exercise it through the NPC.

At this year's NPC, which runs March 5 to the March 18, delegates will be asked to approve new laws senior leaders have already decided to pass. And they are expected to approve the successors to current rulers.

The new Communist Party chairman and current vice president, Hu Jintao, is expected to replace President Jiang Zemin. And Zhu Rongji's post of prime minister is likely to go to Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Professor Zweig says the congress offers delegates the opportunity to voice concerns in the main assembly and in small meetings with officials. "It offers delegates who attend the chance to criticize leaders, to criticize the governmen," he says. "And sometimes one even finds that certain decisions, by the central leadership and individuals can come in for criticism."

The delegates also hear the government explain its priorities and policies.

An increasing number of foreign investors will be keeping a close watch on the NPC. They expect it to approve new laws for China's membership in the World Trade Organization.