China's political elite gather for their most public meetings of the year with an uncomfortable scandal tainting a leading politician and roiling the ruling Communist Party's plans for a smooth transition to a new leadership.
All eyes will be on Bo Xilai, the party chief of an inland metropolis who became a national figure by battling organized crime and promoting communist nostalgia, when the national legislature opens its annual session Monday.
Tall and telegenic, Bo has been a media darling at past sessions, trailed by reporters and holding forth at packed news conferences. The celebrity aura enhanced his reputation as a political up-and-comer, likely to make it into the Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power, in a transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders expected this fall.
Now Bo is rumored to have been questioned by internal party investigators after his mob-busting police chief and one-time ally in Chongqing apparently fled the city and stayed overnight in a U.S. Consulate last month in a bizarre episode yet to be explained.
"This was a very dramatic case, and the leadership doesn't want to see any more such drama before October," said China politics experts Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore, who is not related to the Chongqing party chief.
The scandal landed ahead of the 10-day National People's Congress session and a concurrent meeting of a top government advisory body _ generally tightly scripted political theater meant to underscore leadership unity. It also comes as President Hu Jintao and others in the collective leadership try to minimize the elbow-jostling as they negotiate over who will replace them.
Overshadowed by the personnel drama, the congress is unlikely to adopt major policy initiatives even as China grapples with a slowing economy, a weakening property market at home, simmering unrest among Tibetans and scores of daily demonstrations by farmers, migrants and others who feel unfairly treated amid fast-paced growth and a yawning wealth gap.
"It's unusual for a NPC meeting before a major leadership turnover to discuss anything of major significance," said Prof. Tony Saich, a Harvard University China politics expert. "It's unlikely that there will be any major questions debated."
Premier Wen Jiabao, a lame duck, is expected to call for more funds to build out a social safety net and efforts to boost private business and household consumption, which have been crowded out by heavy government investment into state industries and infrastructure projects in recent years.
Delegates are also due to pass an amendment to the criminal procedure law that could allow police to secretly detain suspects for months without informing their families, although the law's full provisions are still unknown.
Decisions at the NPC are preordained, settled by party leaders behind closed doors and then presented for passage to the roughly 3,000 delegates, about two-thirds of whom are party members. As such, the congress can be expected to keep fractious bargaining over the leadership succession and Bo's troubles out of the spotlight.
Still, how other leaders treat Bo will be seen as signs of his political fate. As one of the 25 members in the Politburo, Bo should be seated on the dais at the congress opening along with Vice President Xi Jinping, heir-apparent to President Hu and other leaders. Other signs of Bo's status will be whether he is allowed to hold a news conference or if the news media may attend discussions by his Chongqing delegation.
A spokesman for the government advisory group, whose annual meeting opens Saturday, sidestepped a question Friday about Bo, telling reporters they may ask Bo during the congress. The spokesman, Zhao Qizheng, confirmed that Chongqing's ex-police chief and vice mayor, Wang Lijun, is under investigation though he did not specify by whom and for what alleged crimes.
"The investigation is making progress," Zhao said at a news conference. He likened media reports about the scandal to puzzle pieces and said, "These reports are not accurate, and some of them are even absurd."
Wang has dropped from sight. The U.S. has declined to discuss anything that transpired at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6-7 other than saying Wang had an appointment and left on his own volition. Wang reportedly sought political asylum and afterward was brought to Beijing by a vice minister of China's secret police and spy agency, according to Hong Kong media reports and Boxun.com, a U.S.-based Chinese language news site.
Among the matters investigators are supposedly looking into is how Bo allowed a top subordinate to seek refuge in the consulate, said Boxun, which was among the first to report the consular visit. Party discipline requires senior officials to seek approval for meetings with foreigners and to report on their contents.
Among the other possible breaches of discipline is Chongqing's dispatch of dozens of vehicles and loads of police to surround the consulate, which is in Sichuan province and thus outside of Bo's jurisdiction, the reports said.
Bo himself is trying to appear above the fray. His supporters are trying to distance him from Wang.
On Friday, political scientist Cui Zhiyuan, a Bo backer and policy adviser to the Chongqing government, told a gathering of Chinese and foreign business executives that Wang had a "serious psychological problem."