BEIJING -- The prime-time soap opera on Chinese TV had the usual cast of characters: the hard-working peasants, the aspiring businessman and the earnest Communist Party member.
Then the surprise: When the loyal party man went to Beijing to speak at the National People's Congress -- China's supposedly compliant parliament -- he blasted the government for overtaxing peasants and lectured fellow party members about their corruption. Then came thunderous applause from congress.
The outspoken party man was more than the figment of a screenwriter's imagination.
As China's congress begins its annual session today, it is more independent and relevant than ever. While hardly a model of parliamentary democracy, the workings of congress are evidence that China -- despite one-party rule and all its repressiveness -- is a looser, less predictable place than it was a few years ago.
With supreme leader Deng Xiaoping ill, the National People's Congress has transcended its traditional "rubber-stamp" tag and become a body whose deliberations matter.
"It has become a forum in which debates are carried out, especially in times of a crisis or when a leadership question comes up," said Kevin J. O'Brien, an associate professor at Ohio State University who has written extensively about the congress.
Attention is also being focused on this session because the congress is led by Qiao Shi, one of the main contenders to succeed Mr. Deng. Mr. Qiao, former boss of China's security apparatus, has tolerated lively debates of and large numbers of "no" votes -- if not actual defeats -- on sensitive government proposals, including changes in the top leadership.
Mr. Qiao has also sought to make the congress China's top law-making body. Although the legal system is still the weak link in China's government, the NPC has recently insisted on having its say before laws are passed -- sometimes holding up or revising laws that Communist leaders have proposed.
In this session, the NPC is to consider 15 laws, including a financial securities bill that the congress did not approve last year because the measure failed to spell out penalties for fraud.
But all these bills will ultimately be passed: the congress has never rejected a law proposed by the party. And the congress is still ultimately controlled by Communist-style democratic centralism, where delegates elect a standing committee, headed by Mr. Qiao, that sets the agenda and tries to keep delegates in line.
But NPC delegates have spoken out -- against party wishes -- on the need for more women and minority members in the congress. Not long after President Jiang Zemin gave a major speech calling for speedy reunification with Taiwan, some delegates -- astonishingly -- made a plea to allow Taiwanese residents to decide their own fate.
This session, delegates will be closely watched for their vote on recent appointments by Mr. Jiang, who has elevated several allies from Shanghai, where he used to be mayor. Government insiders have criticized Mr. Jiang for surrounding himself with cronies.
Even China's dissident community has begun to take the NPC more seriously. Earlier this week, groups of dissidents petitioned the NPC to protect the independence of the judiciary, safeguard human rights and to combat soaring corruption.
But the NPC and the dissidents hardly share the same vision of China's future. While dissidents are agitating for quick reforms and concessions, NPC delegates view themselves as insiders in the political system who can make it better through measured, quiet steps, said Mr. O'Brien, who has interviewed more than three dozen NPC members.
A key to the NPC's development is that it is now associated with the powerful Mr. Qiao, which elevates the congress' status. Mr. Qiao lends the NPC power that may well stay with the congress after Mr. Qiao leaves his post, Mr. O'Brien said.
"We still joke that the chief criteria for being an NPC member is the advanced ability to drink barrels of tea and raise your hand several dozen times an hour," said an NPC staff member. "But to be fair, delegates are starting to take more seriously their role as members of a people's congress. They're learning how to say no."