The annual session of China's legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), is an elaborate, theatrical gathering of China's rich, powerful and famous: Here you'll find generals, billionaires and movie stars — even basketball giant Yao Ming.

When he's not running the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, the ex-Houston Rockets center is a deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC — sort of like the legislature's upper house, but without the power to approve bills.

There's also Pony Ma, who — when he's not here — runs the technology firm Tencent. He is estimated to be worth about $18 billion.

And there's Tao Huabi, an illiterate peasant woman from southwest Guizhou Province, who built a multimillion-dollar chili sauce empire.

Harder to find are signs that the Congress is much closer to fulfilling its touted role as an embodiment of popular sovereignty and socialist democracy.

In this year's legislative session, which wraps up Wednesday, the nearly 3,000 NPC delegates file into the cavernous, red-carpeted Great Hall of the People in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Under ornate chandeliers, sharply dressed attendants pour cups of tea for the legislators.

A military band strikes up a march as the country's leaders take the stage in the colossal auditorium.

The monotony of dark business suits and olive-drab uniforms is punctuated by the colorful ethnic costumes of delegates from the country's 56 minority groups.

Wang Anlan, a 28-year-old delegate representing the Qiang people, who inhabit the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, comes in an elaborate headdress and robe adorned with pearls, tassels and embroidered flowers. She says she knows just what her people want.

"I'm on the front lines, in constant contact with local residents," she says. "I listen to their voices, hopes and expectations, and bring them here to the Great Hall of the People."

State media have reported, though, that most Chinese have no idea how to even contact the delegates who claim to represent them. Ordinary citizens elect local legislators, who then choose national ones. Most of the delegates here only do this job part-time.

China's constitution makes the NPC the highest organ of state power. But critics say that the legislators are unable to exercise all this power and merely ratify decisions that the leadership has already made.

The NPC has never vetoed a law put before it by the party or government. But Shanghai delegate Sun Xianzhong notes that a draft law usually goes through several "readings" before the final vote. Legislators, he notes, rejected seven drafts of China's property law before finally passing it in 2007.

Sun also argues that the NPC is getting tougher about overseeing the government. Delegates gave the environment minister a grilling last year about the smog choking China's cities, he says.

"Some of them," he says, "spoke very sharply, pointing their fingers at his nose and asking him, 'Where is this pollution coming from? Is it from cars? Steel factories? Heating plants? Why can't you explain this precisely?' "

In other matters, though, the party insists on overseeing itself.

Lawyer and NPC delegate Han Deyun has tabled seven parliamentary motions calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets in order to prevent graft. Civil society activists who have campaigned for the same thing have been sent to jail. Han dropped his quest three years ago.

"It will likely be a long time before any system for officials to make public their assets reaches the stage of legislation at the NPC," he concedes, speaking at the Great Hall of the People.

The party has chosen to address the issue through its own rules, he explains.

"I feel that the motions and suggestions I've tabled have gotten the leadership's attention, so there's no need to continue tabling them," he says.

At this year's legislative session, there was some informal debate about whether legislators have enough freedom of speech to do their jobs.

Ge Jianxiong, a history professor at Shanghai's Fudan University and a CPPCC delegate, warns foreigners not to confuse China's legislature with Western-style parliaments.

"This is China," he says. "The Communist Party's ruling status is absolute, and it leads the government. Under these circumstances, if we want to make a contribution to our country, this channel is worth using. That's all we can do."

Ge admits that he often offers the leadership his advice not at the Great Hall of the People, but through confidential channels.

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