Democracy withers away as China's leaders gather

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Mr Hu will oversee the meeting of hundreds of fawning comrades secure in the knowledge that his grip on power is more firm that it has ever been, but with possibly a niggle in the back of his mind that even the monolithic Communist Party could one day be swept away in a Ukranian-style orange revolution.

For the first time, Mr Hu will be chairing the plenum, the annual meeting of China's top 500 government and party officials, while holding all three of the most powerful positions in the country: as President, head of the Communist Party (CCP) and of the military.

The plenum has been timed to coincide with the launch of China's second manned space mission on 13 October. To foreign observers, nothing illustrates China's rise more than its ambitions to rival the space programmes of the US and Russia. But while Mr Hu maintains a serene persona on the world stage, he and the other 24 members of the party's politburo know the reality of life in China is very different from the propaganda churned out by the state media.

With a growing gap between the rich and poor, a chasm-like division between the booming cities and depressed rural areas and an increasingly restive population, fed up with rampant corruption and the lack of affordable access to education and health care, China is far from stable and its leaders are worried.

Official figures reveal that there were 74,000 protests involving almost four million people in China last year. Mr Hu and his colleagues have only to look to Ukraine for a recent example of a people's revolution and the hundreds of millions of dispossessed farmers, urban unemployed and migrant workers are all candidates to lead a popular revolt. "The single-minded emphasis on economic growth without paying attention to social equality and distributive justice will enhance social tensions, thus undermining CCP rule," said the China expert Cheng Li of Hamilton College in New York State.

Even before the plenum got under way, the state media were stressing that these issues would be addressed. "In the next five years, China should pay more attention to social fairness and democracy," said the Xinhua News Agency last week.

Many analysts though, believe it is the fact that the government plays an obtrusive role in almost every aspect of the economy that has hindered the "People First" policies Mr Hu has pursued since he became President in March 2003. Collusion between corrupt officials and private business is endemic, while the much-vaunted reforms of health care and education have created a profit-driven system that means that many Chinese cannot afford to see a doctor, or send their children to school.

Nor has the 63-year-old Mr Hu shown any interest in creating a democracy in China. On the contrary, an intense crackdown on the media and the internet in recent months has seen journalists arrested and web forums closed down. Local activists have been ruthlessly silenced.

Hu has also ordered party cadres to undergo "re-education" in such staples as Mao Tse-Tung thought and Marxism-Leninism.

Government plans to help spread China's wealth more fairly include tax rises and a campaign to root out corrupt cadres. Mr Hu though, may have other things on his mind. The nine-member Standing Committee of the CCCPC, the government's inner circle, remains dominated by the "Shanghai Clique", former protégés of the previous president Jiang Zhemin, and Mr Hu may feel the time has come to stamp his authority on the committee by appointing some of his followers to it. But it will take more than a few new faces to cure China's ills.