Police have been mounting a crackdown across China against pro-democracy activists in the last few days after outspoken attacks on Mr Li. The outgoing prime minister in 1989 imposed martial law and backed the suppression of the pro-democracy movement. "He has the blood of dead people on his hands," said an open letter from activists in Zhejiang province, two of whom have been questioned by police. "We call on the NPC [parliament] not to vote for him as he already has a place in the history of China's humiliation."
A petition signed by 56 relatives of students killed in the 1989 shootings, said: "We earnestly ask the NPC membership review committee to disqualify him." More than a dozen open petitions have been issued this year. They demand reforms and a reassessment of the official verdict of the events of 1989 as "counter-revolutionary".
The parliament, which opens this week, will appoint Zhu Rongji, China's chief economic policy-maker, as the new prime minister and lay the ground for big cuts in the civil service and government ministries.
But it is Mr Li's move to the chairmanship of the parliament which is most controversial, because the appointment will be viewed as a step backwards for any chance of political reform.
Human rights groups in Hong Kong at the weekend said three more dissidents had been detained recently. In Shanghai police took away Yang Qinheng and Zhang Rujun, who signed a petition calling for the release of political prisoners. Ma Lianggang, in the central city of Hefei, was picked up on Saturday.
It was not clear if these arrests were connected with the alleged formation of an underground political group opposing Communist party rule. A New York-based dissident, Fu Shenqi, said the "China Democratic Justice Party" had been set up with more than 100 members and five to 10 branches based in provinces and cities.
Mr Fu said the party had intended to meet in a northern Chinese city towards the end of February, but that the plan had been scrapped after Wang Bingzhang, an exiled dissident who returned secretly from the United States in January to help set up the party, was arrested and expelled.
Security is so tight ahead of the People's Congress that it would be an extraordinary achievement to organise an underground group without tipping off the police. Tolerance for public political debate is at rock- bottom in China in the run-up to the meeting, even though petitioning the parliament is - in theory - legal.
Under the constitution, Mr Li must step down as prime minister at this parliament after two five-year terms. But the hardliner will remain the second most powerful man in China's political hierarchy, and President Jiang Zemin has had to accommodate his demands for a significant new post. Mr Li's preferred choice was to be head of the NPC.
The outgoing chairman of parliament is Qiao Shi, 73, whose political career hit a brick wall last autumn when he was dumped from the politburo standing committee. Despite his past role as China's top secret policeman, he was credited with building up the role of the NPC from that of a mere rubber stamp.
Resistance to Mr Li's appointment may be significant in the parliament itself, as delegates have become less compliant. At last year's NPC, about 40 per cent of deputies dared either to vote against, or abstain, on the report from China's top legal officer. A repeat rebellion against Mr Li's appointment as NPC head would be a huge loss of face.Reuse content