Briefing: Chinese Communists gather for power-broking Party Congress

The succession could be determined at this week's 'Big 17th' in Beijing
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Why has the Chinese government banned paragliding, private aircraft, model planes and anyone parasailing over Beijing for the next week?

Parasailing is not a common sport in Beijing, but even so, all "flying entertainment objects" are grounded as part of security measures for the Communist Party Congress, a five-yearly gathering, starting tomorrow, during which the ruling party elects more than 350 full and alternate members of the elite Central Committee. Police in the capital are rounding up political dissidents, banning controversial movies and talk radio shows, enforcing traffic rules, closing brothels and encouraging a general air of uprightness.

Sounds like a major fuss for a lot of boring old procedure?

Indeed, but a lot of people reckon this congress is a fight for the heart and soul of China's Communist Party, in power since the 1949 Revolution. President Hu Jintao has to juggle the demands of his reformist backers and the conservative old guard, which is unhappy at market reforms and the introduction of controversial laws, such as those protecting private property, which they see as betraying socialist principles.

What happens?

The congress usually goes on for about a week, and this year the pre-selected pool of candidates is made up of 350 cadres. It is being staged with greater openness than ever before, but we can still expect plenty of red flags, applause and superficial unity on policy issues, but significant dissent and jockeying for influence below the surface. At the meeting which Beijingers just call "The Big 17th," Hu will win a second five-year term as party general secretary. In his keynote address to the opening session of the congress he will give his appraisal of how the party has done over the last five years, as well as policy ideas for the next half-decade. Hu will promote his own private obsessions, notably his theory of "scientific development" and "harmonious society".

Behind closed doors, what will really happen?

This is a big political test for Hu, who is also president and head of the army, to see how many allies he can get on to the Standing Committee and the Politburo. There will be questions about whether he has the clout to appoint an heir-apparent.

But if he runs the show, surely he can appoint his successor?

It's not clear that he can, and a priority for Hu is to shake off the residual influence of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. The president replaced the 81-year-old Jiang as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee at the 16th congress in 2002, state president in 2003 and military chief in 2004, completing China's first smooth transition of leadership since the 1949 revolution. But Jiang has continued to wield power behind the scenes through his allies in key positions within the power structure.

If Jiang is outflanked, who could be in line for the top position?

Among those tipped to join the Politburo's Standing Committee, and named as possible successors, are Li Keqiang, party secretary from Liaoning province, Li Yuanchao, party secretary of Jiangsu province and Wang Yang, party secretary for the municipality of Chongqing.

So is the party a political dinosaur in the age of socialism with Chinese characteristics?

Never bet on it. At the first congress in Shanghai in 1921, 13 delegates took part, including the politically savvy Mao Tse-tung, with grudging backing from the Soviet Union. Back then there were 60 Communists in China – today the party has 73 million members, and the support of most of the governments of the world.

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