China's annual legislative session opens Monday amid a challenging leadership transition, economic fears and a day after the country announced a defense spending boost that reflects concern over a renewed U.S. focus on Beijing's Asia-Pacific backyard.
The National People's Congress also starts as China faces new pressures at home and abroad, but with a leadership possibly ill-equipped to respond because of a lengthy transition period. That includes behind-the-scenes political bargaining as President Hu Jintao and the most senior Communist Party leaders begin stepping aside this fall _ after a decade in power _ to make way for a younger generation.
"We are currently in a silent period, everything is happening behind the scenes," said Peking University political scientist Yang Zhaohui. New leaders won't take over until October.
China's economic and military growth over recent years has unsettled neighbors and brought a renewed attention to the region by the United States _ prompting it to redirect defense resources there.
But after years of breakneck growth, China's economy is slowing, many local governments are wracked with debt and, with Europe in crisis and the U.S. recovery fragile, demand for Chinese exports is weakening.
Protests at home soar as many Chinese _ from middle-class urbanites and pensioners fed up with rising living costs to farmers losing land to development _ demand more accountable government and the closing of a large rich-poor gap. Violent unrest among ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang is also running high.
All that complicates efforts by Chinese leaders to steer the economy toward a more sustainable course by boosting domestic consumption, expanding the social safety net and generating jobs.
Against this backdrop, Premier Wen Jiabao in his report that opens the congress Monday is not expected to launch major initiatives, such as those being mulled to spur domestic demand by granting rural migrants the same social services city dwellers receive or by reforming the big state industries that dominate energy, telecommunications and other fields. Instead, piecemeal programs are likely to be on offer to help private enterprises get loans, create jobs in service industries, and raise workers' wages.
"I think big steps will all have to wait for next year, at least," said Wei Yao, an economist with the European financial services company Societe Generale.
The most significant piece of work on the 10-day congress's public agenda is reforming the criminal procedure law. Amendments will protect suspects against forced confessions and illegally gathered evidence and improve their access to lawyers, congress spokesman Li Zhaoxing told reporters Sunday. Left unclear by Li is whether the bill still includes an amendment that would give police legal authority to disappear suspects in some cases; Li said the changes improve procedures for family notification.
Chinese scholars and political commentators have begun talking about a "trapped transition" _ in which the wealthy, the politically connected and other vested interests stifle reforms. While China's economy has quadrupled in size to become the world's second largest under President Hu, the police and internal security have grown apace, and some critics have taken aim at the Hu administration's focus on "stability preservation" as a catchphrase for maintaining the party's monopoly on power at a time of rapid social change.
"For some years now, more and more people have gradually come to realize that slogans ... are just a means for a very small group of people with special interests to use political intimidation to maintain their interests by blocking reform," Chen Jiwen, a researcher at China Politics and Law University, wrote in an essay posted on his blog last month.
Li announced Sunday that defense spending would grow by 11.2 percent this year over 2011, the latest in a nearly two-decade string of double-digit increases.