HONG KONG — The annual session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, is a carefully crafted pageant intended to convey the image of a transparent, responsive government. While the congress is often dismissed as a rubber stamp, it can provide important clues to the government’s priorities.
Here’s what you need to know about the session, which opens in Beijing on Saturday.
Q. Does the congress have any real power?
A. Yes, but not much. Its nearly 3,000 delegates are mostly officials and party members who dare not challenge the leadership. Ultimate political authority rests with the Chinese Communist Party, whose Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping, sets policy. So the N.P.C.’s influence is limited.
Still, it has forced delays and the reconsideration of proposals. In China’s authoritarian system, even small numbers of dissenting votes make a statement, such as when a third of the delegates voted against or abstained from approving the controversial Three Gorges Dam in 1992. The dam was still approved, though.
Q. So what should you watch for?
A. While the meetings are carefully scripted, they can be useful for discerning political priorities and economic expectations. Officials have used past meetings to send signals on important policy moves, like the end of the one-child policy.
China usually announces its military budget here. It is just one total figure, so it doesn’t say much, but the annual increase is analyzed for clues about the increasing capabilities of the armed forces. This year the military budget will grow by 7 to 8 percent, a congressional spokeswoman said Friday, a smaller increase than usual.
The meetings also give journalists rare access to officials, both in organized news conferences and in impromptu stand-ups. Occasionally an unscripted comment shakes loose.
N.P.C. delegates can also make proposals. Even if their ideas do not become legislation, they can provide a sense of which issues are of concern to the public, and within specific industries and regions.
Q. What will happen this year?
A. N.P.C. delegates are expected to complete China’s 13th five-year plan, which spells out key social and economic goals from 2016 to 2020. The outlines of the plan were released after a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in October. The plan is likely to be released publicly only after the congress ends, on March 16.
With growth slowing, China’s economic plans are falling under intense global scrutiny. Mr. Xi faces questions about his ability to shift the economy from its reliance on investment and exports to a more slow-growth, domestic-consumption-based model, while reducing threats of overcapacity and growing debt.
On Saturday, Premier Li Keqiang will produce his annual work report, which should give a target for how much the Chinese economy will grow over the next year. While economists have questioned the accuracy of China’s official economic statistics, the numbers are expected to give a sense of how dramatically officials expect growth to decelerate.
At the end of the session, the premier’s closing news conference sometimes reveals insights into the leadership’s thinking.
Q. How much debate is there?
A. Don’t expect Washington-style argument. Important decisions, like the five-year plan, are ironed out months and years in advance.
In recent days the Chinese news media has run articles discussing the importance of dissenting views from political advisers. While the Communist Party can be brutal in suppressing organized political dissent, the delegates can use their reports and suggestions to highlight areas of concern.
Another body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, meets at the same time. With a membership including people in business, the arts, law and other fields, it is intended to offer a broader range of suggestions on the direction of the country, but it has no lawmaking power.