China's parliament looks set to approve a 13 percent hike in military spending this year, while political reforms look unlikely to be discussed amid growing censorship of online opinion.
The overall defense budget is to rise by 12.7 percent to 601 billion yuan (U.S. $91.5 billion) in 2011, compared with an increase of 7.5 percent last year, official media reported on Friday.
Li Zhaoxing, spokesman for the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), said the bulk of spending would be funneled into arms, military training, and improving the living standards of personnel.
Analysts said the timing of the spending hike was highly political, however.
"It's fairly clear that they are boosting the military budget because they are about to select a new leader, and they want to make the military feel secure," said Hong Kong-based analyst Tan Zhiqiang.
He said the ruling Communist Party would select successors to current President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao at the 18th Party Congress next year, with the former tipped to be succeeded by vice-premier Xi Jinping.
"There's no other real reason behind the boost in the military budget."
A smooth transition?
Tan said the current leadership is placing a strong emphasis on social stability around the transition of power to the next generation.
"They want there to be no trouble, and a smooth transition from the fourth to the fifth generation of leaders," he said.
The budget was also expanding to enable a pay-rise for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), analysts said.
Chinese netizens commented wryly on the news, with one comment echoing late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping: "We should of course allow our uncles in the PLA to get rich first," the commentator said.
Beijing-based commentator Gao Yu said the PLA had already benefited from huge spending increases. "Every year, the military gets richer and richer," Gao said.
"The steady rise in PLA pay has a lot to do with international trends," she added. "And there has been a lot of friction between the people and the government, so that they daren't even publish the number of 'mass incidents.'"
"They use public, taxpayers' money to keep the civil service and the military stable, and consolidate them as a political tool," Gao added.
"I think the military spending hike has to do with the Jasmine revolution," she said. "It wouldn't be so high without it."
As the parliament gets ready to open in Beijing on Saturday, netizens hit out at ever-tightening controls on online opinion.
Many have complained that the existing system of Internet blocks, filters, and self-censorship, known collectively as the Great Firewall (GFW), has been stepped up in recent weeks, making it harder to use circumvention tools to access blocked websites like the microblogging service Twitter.
Encrypted searches via Google were no longer functioning normally, they said.
China has maintained tight controls on online comment about the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East, and online activists say they have been deluged by pro-government comments on microblogging platforms which they say are written by professionals on behalf of the ruling Communist Party.
Pro-government commentators and officials have accused foreign journalists of trying to "stir up trouble" in their coverage of calls for similar protests for a cleaner and more accountable government in China.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called on the 3,000 hand-picked NPC delegates to use their position to push for more openness in government.
"Reporters Without Borders calls on the Chinese authorities to come to their senses following the draconian clampdown they imposed on the media in reaction to the wave of protest in North Africa and the Middle East," the group said in a statement on its website.
"They clearly fear the unrest could spread to Chinese soil and are therefore highly sensitive to questions of freedom of expression and the rights of journalists to freely exercise their profession," the group said.
It said Beijing is currently holding 77 cyber-dissidents and 30 journalists in prison.
"The Chinese government must rise to the challenge of what is a fundamental demand for its people—free speech," the statement said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.