All the fun of the National People's Congress

The annual gathering in Beijing's Great Hall of the People is the nearest thing you get to democracy in Communist China. Just don't expect to hear any dissent, reports Clifford Coonan

One of the world's truly remarkable political spectacles, China's National People's Congress (NPC), opened yesterday for the annual show of support for the policies of the ruling Communist Party.

For China-watchers, the events in the Great Hall of the People are crucial to building up a picture of what is happening in the most populous nation on earth with its fast-growing major economy and expanding global role. While the NPC is not democratically elected, it has significance because many in China see it as a forum for expressing their views.

That means that no petitioners who are angry at land grabs or local corruption are allowed near Tiananmen Square, with security officers checking bags and much of the area rigged with tape. Many petitioners have been hauled off or ordered to stay at home.

However China's premier, Wen Jiabao, addressed many of the concerns that are stirring deep unease among the country's 1.3 billion people in his annual policy speech in the massive Great Hall of the People, a red-flag bedecked Soviet-style building where many of the major events in the capital are held.

Highlighting threats to social stability, Mr Wen said that more needed to be done to create jobs, strengthen social welfare and boost development in restive regions such as Tibet.

"Everything we do, we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity and to make our society fairer and more harmonious," he told the 3,000 delegates.

The leadership has staved off more serious discontent by focusing on economic growth, and the country escaped the worst of the global downturn.

All around Tiananmen Square, the site of some of the bloodiest actions of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing, red flags fly from the roofs of buildings, lining the way to the Great Hall. Soldiers stand to attention outside the hall and vigilant police ring a wider area around the hall.

Inside, the seats are laid out in tight order. Big bunches of flowers are on some of the tables and red flags dominate. The effectively unanimous votes given for every bill at the meeting, as well as the disciplined, enthusiastic rounds of applause, hearken back to that time in history when the world was divided on clear ideological grounds.

This year, China's annual parliament will approve an increase in the country's spending on defence of 7.5 per cent, a smaller increase than expected and the first time in more than two decades the jump has been less than double digits. China has repeatedly promised that its breathtaking economic advances would be a "peaceful rise", but some analysts are wondering about the aims of the armed forces' expansion and believe that the official increase is twice what Beijing claims.