Aside from formally approving the 11th five-year plan for national development, delegates to the 10-day meeting are expected to focus on the following key issues:

RURAL RENEWAL

Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, has called for a focus on the countryside through an ambitious agenda to help improve farmers' lives and productivity amid rising fears about the widening wealth gap and surging rural unrest.

The "new socialist countryside" programme promises to increase support for China's 750 million farmers, improve rural schools and health care, and end decades of discrimination against rural migrant workers.

 

Media reports have said that the rural renewal programme could cost up to $1.24 trillion over two decades.

 

TAIWAN

 

Self-ruled Taiwan is likely to take the spotlight with NPC deputies condemning its president, Chen Shui-bian, for scrapping the democratic island's National Unification Council and its 15-year-old guidelines on unification with the mainland.

 

The NPC passed an Anti-Secession Law last year, mandating war if the island formally declared statehood.

 

VICE PREMIER

 

The session, due to end on 14 March, could be an opportunity for Hu to appoint a new vice-premier to replace the ailing Huang Ju, 67, one of the closest political allies of Hu's still influential predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

 

Two Chinese sources with knowledge of Huang's illness said the sixth-ranking member of the Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee was suffering from pancreatic cancer and underwent two operations this year.

 

They said face-saving alternatives included increasing the number of vice-premiers or sharing Huang's portfolios - finance and economics - among the three other current vice-premiers.

 

MILITARY

 

On Saturday, Jiang Enzhu, the parliament spokesman, said the government would spend 14.7% more on defence in 2006 than it did last year, a third straight year of double-digit growth in military spending as China drives to modernise its armed forces.

 

The 2.3-million-strong People's Liberation Army, the world's largest standing army, is tasked with attacking Taiwan if it formally declares statehood. But analysts say that because of widely outdated equipment and poor training, the Chinese military largely lacks the bite to back up its bark.

 

ENVIRONMENT

 

China's environmental woes, from smog-choked cities to heavy factory pollution, have become a major cause of unrest and could be discussed at the NPC through a debate over whether a "Green GDP" index should be included in the 11th five-year plan.

 

Such an index would be likely to focus on establishing an accounting system to calculate the costs associated with degradation, and factoring environmental losses into measures of regional development and evaluation of local officials.

 

CONSUMPTION

 

How to jump-start consumption as the next engine of growth to trim the economy's reliance on investment and exports is likely to be an important topic at the NPC.

 

Many ordinary people say, however, that they will need to see considerable reforms to China's health care, pension and education systems, and improvements in infrastructure, before they start loosening up their purse strings.