Hope, despair and apathy as Chinese leaders meet

As China grandly opened its showcase annual parliamentary session in Beijing on Tuesday, the city's residents and visitors reacted with a mixture of hope and despair -- and sometimes apathy.

Some saw prospects for reform, others anger at "wasteful meetings", but the concerns of wide-eyed out-of-town tourists thronging the capital were directed firmly elsewhere.

"Premier Wen is making a speech today?" asked a tourist from Henan province near the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress (NPC) was opening. "That doesn't mean that the Forbidden City is closed, does it?"

The former palace of China's emperors -- Beijing's top attraction -- is across Tiananmen Square from the Soviet-style building that hosts the legislative meeting.

Inside the cavernous hall, China's top leaders, including premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, president Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping, sat in raised rows, each with a white teacup and a copy of Wen Jiabao's work report, in front of cascading red curtains with enormous gold tassels.

Young women in red outfits swarmed onto the stage in a tight formation to pour drinks for the officials, and the sound of rustling paper echoed through the hall's three tiers as some 3,000 delegates turned their pages in unison.

Xi looked relaxed as he walked to his place and Hu listened impassively.

As Wen spoke of making "improving people's well-being" a priority, commuters at Tiananmen West metro station walked indifferently past giant television screens showing his speech live.

But in a country with few opportunities for active involvement in politics, there are many who see the NPC, and a simultaneous meeting of China's highest-profile advisory body, as a potential springboard for reform.

"I don't think the important question is, 'Do the two meetings have power?' The important question is, 'Do the delegates have concern for the people?'" said a 60-year-old woman surnamed Lu, who was visiting a Beijing park despite pollution readings being well above World Health Organisation guidelines.

"Everyone in China knows that power currently lies with only a few, but if delegates do not care for the people then there is never any chance of progress with political reform in the future."

Xian Lan, another woman pensioner, was less philosophical.

"What is the point of all these wasteful, expensive meetings when there are so many poor people in China?", she said.