China's ruling Communists are gathering for a major five-yearly meeting in the capital, insisting that the party will never mimic the Western political model and saying any political reform would be entirely on Chinese terms.
Audis and VWs with blacked-out windows whisked cadres from all over China out of Beijing airport to destinations around the city ahead of the 17th Party Congress, known to the taxi drivers, pedestrians and waiters as the "Big 17th".
While there is a buzz of expectation on the streets about the meeting, any decisions made will be behind closed doors and the terms of the meeting have already been decided by President Hu Jintao, who will use the conclave to strengthen his grip on power and set out a future course for the 73-million member party and the country of 1.3 billion people.
"Our party emphasises holding up high the great banner of socialism with distinct Chinese characteristics. We will never copy the model of the Western political system," spokesman Li Dongsheng said on the eve of the meeting opening today.
The talks take place against a background of increased transparency of how the Communist Party operates. Foreign press have been given full permission to report on the event, with shuttle buses organised to and from the Great Hall of the People and email reminders to check the website for latest updates.
However, so much of what goes on remains cloaked in secrecy. There has been talk of greater representation within the decision-making Central Committee, but no one knows any details. We do not even know how big the elite Politburo will be. All we know is that, at the momen,t the opaque black box which runs the world's most populous country and its fourth largest economy has 23 members.
Mr Hu must juggle positions at the top of the party to get rid of cadres installed under his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in favour of promoting younger leaders who will form the core of the "fifth generation" of the Chinese Communist Party.
Two of Mr Hu's allies – Xi Jinping of Shanghai and Li Keqiang of the north-eastern province Liaoning – are expected to be installed to the central section of the Politburo, a nine-seat body called the Politburo Standing Committee, that could be a way of singling them out as successors for the president and Premier Wen Jiabao at the next congress in five years.
When the congress opens amid waving red banners and much communist pomp in the Great Hall of the People today, we can expect President Hu, who is also head of the party and leader of the army, to outline a lengthy list of achievements to resounding applause from the 2,200 delegates who are expected to gather for the meeting.
While the Communist Party has abandoned communism in practice, its procedure remains firmly couched in the language of Marxist-Leninism, and we can expect much talk of socialism with Chinese characteristics. In recent years, the party has allowed entrepreneurs into its ranks.
Security is tight throughout the city – police cars are everywhere, traffic regulations are being strictly enforced, people's bags were being searched on Tiananmen Square and prominent dissidents have been rounded up and either warned to stay quiet for the duration of the week-long talks, kicked out of the city or placed under house arrest.Reuse content