Prices are soaring, but Party plays on. OUTSIDE CHINA'S GREAT HALL

In these times of plenty, not even the rich dishes at the Phoenix Restaurant mask the flavor of the bitterest fruit from China's economic reforms. ``Inflation, price rises, that's the biggest problem in China today,'' says a traveling salesman from Hebei Province, jabbing his chopsticks through steam rising from a platter of pork and hot peppers.

The salesmen, cabbies, and street vendors who eat at the Phoenix have prospered by taking up the lucrative service jobs that have emerged during the 10 fat years of market-oriented reform.

But even those who gain most from the freer economy are rankled by double-digit inflation, the leading worry of most Chinese, according to state opinion polls.

``State-owned shops don't have fresh vegetables, so we have to go to the free markets. But we can't afford the high prices at the free markets,'' said Jiu Dexian, a Peking cabbie.

Despite such widespread discontent, there is little talk of inflation and other sensitive public concerns among delegates at the annual session of China's nominal legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), judging from official reports and meetings open to foreign journalists.

Only three miles separate the Phoenix from the Great Hall of the People, but the tight political hold of the Communist Party discourages delegates from carrying this intense popular criticism before China's communist leaders.

Instead, in eight meetings this week, the 2,978 deputies at the NPC discussed the challenge of speeding development of China's coast, streamlining the bureaucracy, and eight other goals set by the communist leadership.

But there are signs leaders may be paying greater heed to public opinion and tolerating debate, as long as it honors the primacy of the Communist Party:

Some party-approved candidates have reportedly failed to win election in local people's congresses. The official party newspaper, People's Daily, ran in December an editorial consoling such cadres.

``It is possible that some excellent and more appropriate candidates have lost for complicated reasons. Even so, those comrades who have lost should not nurse grievances and blame the masses,'' the party newspaper said.

Leaders in Guangdong Province left the post of provincial superior-court president vacant, after the two slated candidates and a candidate nominated by Congress deputies failed to win a majority of votes.

A representative from Hong Kong and Macao forced a revision of a resolution praising the work of the Guangdong Court, when she noted that the report failed to mention disagreement over the provincial court's performance.

During the three-week National People's Congress scheduled to end on April 13, delegates for the first time failed to unanimously endorse the membership of seven committees.

The government, while still barring reporters from most of the proceedings of the Congress, opened the doors of the Great Hall wider than during any other congress since the party took power in 1949.

Nevertheless, deputies attending the Congress admit that when leaders talk of improving democracy in China, they are actually urging cadres to merely consider the opinions of the 1 billion Chinese who are not party members.

Deputy Pu Jiexiu said that under a democratic system ``with Chinese characteristics'' leaders will ``listen more openly to the people and reflect the opinions of the people.''

``So the NPC session is the opportunity for us to exercise our democratic right of reflecting the opinions of the people,'' she said.

However, the delegates must do this under the guidance of the Communist Party, said Ms. Pu and other delegates.

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