BEIJING — For sheer placidity, few political set pieces in today's world rival a plenary session of the annual meeting of China's supreme legislative body, the National People's Congress, which opens here Monday.
But behind the carefully orchestrated votes and the paeans for the ruling Communist Party that will echo around the Great Hall of the People for the next two weeks, real debate will be fermenting in closed-door meetings, say legislators and analysts.
As the government moves hesitantly toward the rule of law in more areas of its citizens' lives, "many things need legal legitimacy," says Wang Zhengxu, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore. That means that the NPC "has been getting some political muscle in recent years."
In theory, the NPC's 2,980 members constitute the highest body in the land, naming the president, approving the national budget, and passing legislation such as the key law scheduled for passage next week to protect private property, seen as another nail in Chinese communism's coffin.
In reality, they merely formalize decisions that the Communist Party politburo has already made and endorse what the party wants to do. Sixty percent of them are ruling party members.
But the consensus-conscious nature of contemporary Chinese politics gives the NPC scope to make its voice heard. And at lower levels of government, local People's Congresses can sometimes offer an arena for real, if limited, political action, say democracy activists.
The limits derive largely from the way People's Congress members are chosen: At the lowest, district level they are directly elected by the citizenry, but Communist apparatchiks generally ensure that potential troublemakers do not get on the ballot.
Further up the scale, at city, provincial, and national levels, each congress is elected by the congress below it. "By law we have wide powers, but most deputies simply follow government orders," says Xu Zhiyong, a People's Congress member in the Haidian district of Beijing and outspoken democracy proponent.
The orders sometimes take a long time to come. The property law is expected to be passed at this session of the NPC, but it has already been subjected to seven readings in an unusually complicated passage through the congress's Standing Committee.
The controversy that the bill has generated reflects misgivings not only among NPC members, but among members of the Communist Party and the government, say analysts. Indeed, NPC proceedings are often a window onto the inner and secretive workings of the party.
"The NPC is one of the places we would first expect to see real divisions in the party leadership when they emerge," says Scot Tanner, a China analyst at the RAND Corp.
Government leaders try to keep internal disagreements quiet. "This is not like Western parliaments where serious fights happen on stage," says Cai Dingjian, a former congressional staffer who now runs an independent center to study NPC affairs. "By the time the NPC meets, positions have already been reconciled, and the decisions have already been made.
"Behind the scenes, there will have been some very serious debates," he adds. "But China is still a one-party state. The ruling party does not want to see 40 percent of deputies vote against it. Even 10 percent would mean a loss of face."
In private, though, NPC staffers, who draft the legislation that will go to a vote, play an influential role in shaping its content. The NPC Standing Committee can make government officials testify before it, and Politburo members often consult NPC experts.
This search for consensus "ensures that a lot of interests get a say in [legislation's] content that would have been cut out before," says Dr. Tanner.
And while votes in the NPC generally pass by steamroller majorities, deputies can use their annual sessions as an opportunity to raise issues that are worrying them.
Whether it be skyrocketing house prices, poor healthcare or prohibitive school fees, deputies can try to create a buzz at an NPC session by submitting a briefing paper on their pet issue and hoping it will be among the 300 such papers chosen for publication and circulation at the meeting.
"Each year, hot topics emerge, and the debate attracts government attention," says Professor Cai. "This is a formal channel to reach the rulers, and in this sense the NPC is assuming its responsibility to represent people's opinions."
"For outsiders looking at the surface, the annual NPC meetings seem like a formality, with no substance," he adds. "But they have their political uses."
Delegates also push their agendas through the media, alerting journalists to the closed-door debates. At the local level, too, newspapers play an important role in buttressing deputies' formal powers, says Mr. Xu. "In all the cases where we have won, it has been because of public pressure and newspaper reports," he explains.
Xu has used his position as a district level People's Congress member to prevent the closure of a school for migrant workers' children, and fight for better compensation for residents of housing due for demolition and redevelopment as office space, he says.
"I can do something, even if it is very little," Xu reckons.
At the Beijing People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory sister body to the city's People's Congress, Liu Yaowei also limits himself to what he calls practical issues "related to government management, not the political system."
For example, he and his political allies lost a bid last year to have the capital mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution, which was judged too sensitive a topic. But he won a two-year battle with the city fathers to end a ban on firecrackers at Chinese New Year that had irked Beijing residents since the early 1990s.
Professor Liu is a member of one of the eight "democratic" parties allied with the Communist Party that send delegates to the People's Congresses and their consultative counterparts.
The fact that the Communists choose who those delegates will be, he says, "is not very satisfactory, but it's better than nothing."
Xu takes a similarly pragmatic approach to the lack of democracy in his local congress. "You cannot change much in Haidian without change in China as a whole," he regrets. "But the most important thing is the process. I still think it is meaningful, even for the little progress we can make."