Deng's heirs get back to business

"What is the difference between a Chinese tourist visiting Peking and one of the 3,000 delegates attending the first day of the National People's Congress?" went the joke yesterday. Answer: "The parliamentary delegate has to sit through a two-hour speech by the Prime Minister before he can go shopping."

China's unelected parliament, which convened its annual two-week meeting yesterday, is political theatre with far more form than content. The speeches had been distributed days ago, the new legislation is certain to be voted through, and the number of delegates bothering to turn up for plenary sessions is bound to dwindle over the next fortnight as they find other pressing engagements in Peking's glitzy shopping malls. Some 154 of the 2,962 registered delegates did not even make it to the opening.

But, coming so soon after the death of Deng Xiaoping, this year's NPC should provide some signposts for how China's leaders are positioning themselves in the post-Deng era. Behind the scenes the real politics and electioneering is taking place, as the countdown to the much more important 15th Communist Party Congress this autumn gathers pace. It is at that full congress, held only once every five years, that the top jobs in party and government are decided.

"We must turn grief into strength," said the NPC chairman, Qiao Shi, echoing the words of President Jiang Zemin as he opened the parliament. This phrase has become the leadership's official incantation in the wake of Deng's passing - a case of unity in phrasing, if not in ambition. Mr Qiao is the third most powerful figure in China's hierarchy and a man who has yet to give public backing to Mr Jiang, Deng's hand-picked successor.

The official mourning for Deng now over, a 30-second silence was the almost perfunctory gesture in the Great Hall's main auditorium yesterday morning before the Chinese government switched to business as usual. Hidden from view in the Great Hall's internal courtyard stood a gleaming line of the leadership's official Mercedes; meanwhile, Li Peng thundered that "extravagance, waste and ostentation constitute serious problems".

Mr Li's 20,000-word state-of-the-nation speech provides an annual snapshot of the official view of China. Yesterday he firmly backed the continuation of Deng's reforms and fell into line behind "Comrade Jiang Zemin". It was a far cry from five years ago, when Mr Li lost his argument that China's economic growth should not be too fast, and only just kept his job. The subsequent raging inflation and remedial economic austerity measures narrowed the gap between Mr Li's vision and those of the more impatient reformers, and the Prime Minister - unpopular because of his role in the June 1989 crackdown - probably realises that his political ambitions are best served by allying himself with Mr Jiang.

Mr Li focused on the perennial problem of China's state-owned enterprises. Economic growth for this year, which he put at 8 per cent, is widely expected to reach 10.5 per cent, but at least half those state factories are badly in the red.

Rising crime is the other issue closest to the hearts of ordinary people. To give some idea of the scale of the problem, an official report released on Friday said police had "smashed" more than 38,000 criminal gangs and closed more than 19,000 dance halls and "beauty salons" operating as fronts for illegal activities - in just December and January.

Mr Li can at least claim one quite extraordinary success. Choking on the fug at last year's NPC, the Prime Minister banned smoking for this year's gathering. Yesterday only one smoker could be found wandering the corridors. The only problem for Mr Li, as delegates nipped outside, was that by lunchtime that front steps of the Great Hall had been turned into one big ashtray.

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