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Special report: Red China's blue-blooded coup

It only comes every 10 years – and at the Communist Party's 18th National Congress, the 'Red Princelings' are ready to seize the reins of power

Beijing is in security lockdown – kitchen knives have reportedly been removed from shop shelves, racing pigeons are confined to their lofts, and the window controls removed from passenger seats in taxis across the city to stop people furtively passing out dissenting messages from the back seat.

If this seems a little paranoid, residents can console themselves that it only happens every 10 years. Tomorrow, about 2,300 delegates from municipalities, autonomous regions and provinces all over China meet in Beijing for the beginning of the once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the Communist Party's 18th National Congress.

Few surprises are expected at the very top. Xi Jinping is due to replace Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the party that has ruled China since 1949. Li Keqiang is set to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier. The Congress will see a transition from the current generation of technocrats who have overseen the last decade in China to a new fifth generation of leaders. Many are "Red Princelings", the Communist equivalent of blue-bloods. Xi Jinping's father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary leader and former vice premier.

But while the Party will put on a unified face during the Congress, the last few weeks have seen fierce jostling for power between the ruling factions, in particular between the princelings and the cadres linked to the Communist Youth League (CYL), which is President Hu's power base.

The fifth generation of leaders will also have a raft of knotty problems to deal with. They inherit the weakest economic growth since 1999, with expansion seen at 7.7 per cent this year. They will also have to deal with rising unrest over land grabs and corruption. The event takes place against a backdrop of fraught relations with Japan over the contested islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyutai in China.

Analysts are split over whether the new generation of leaders will be more reform-minded, or stick to the guns of their predecessors. Hu Deping, the son of the late Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, has called on the leadership to embrace change. "Reforms cannot be wasted, promises cannot be abandoned," Mr Hu wrote in the Economic Observer, saying the country's current woes threaten development and could interfere with the Party's power to govern. "We need to create conditions to let private enterprises enter monopoly industries, encourage fair and lawful competition, create and regulate open and fair markets," he wrote.

Steve Tsang at China Policy Research Institute at the University of Nottingham, does not expect the incoming leadership to implement democratic reform, but he hopes the congress introduces a strong leadership that has the political will to re-structure the economy.

"The new cast will be among the 'safest pairs of hands' in the Chinese Communist Party. The courageous, as the word is used in British politics, will not make it in any number. The same will apply to the bold and visionary," he said. The delegates represent many different interests within China, including the state-owned enterprises, the state banks, the People's Liberation Army and other government institutions. Their initial task will be to review the intervening years since the last congress, then pick a 200-member Central Committee. This will appoint the 25-member Politburo, followed by the Politburo Standing Committee, which rumour has it will contain seven rather than the current nine members.

This year's congress will see three quarters of the leadership step down. Fourteen of the 25 Politburo members are expected to retire, while seven of the nine on the Standing Committee are due to retire. The congress is expected to end around November 14.

One princeling once hailed for the top who won't be there is ex-Chongqing Party boss, Bo Xilai, who is embroiled in a scandal over the death of British businessman, Neil Heywood. The leadership ended its latest closed-door plenum this week with a decision to expel Mr Bo from the party, paving the way for his criminal prosecution. Mr Tsang said while the Bo affair will cast a shadow, it is unlikely to make too much impact given the congress is carefully stage-managed, with the propaganda machinery of the Party working at full tilt.

View from the streets: What do the people think?

Gao Qian

30, saleswoman, from Hebei

"There is too much unfairness here and the government controls everything. I have to say we need more human rights. I don't feel disappointed with the current leadership, but there's nothing to be very cheerful about either. In China, leadership is an issue for someone else, not the business of people like me, so I don't need to care about it that much. I have no say in how the leadership works, it's not like the US, as we see on TV these days, where their future President has to debate for the right to rule the country. Here, the leadership's main concern is not the interests of the people."

Kang Li

27, design director, from Chengdu

"I feel there are a lot of things that are unbalanced or unfair in society. The people who have the resources can do things, if not, there is nothing available if you want to do something in normal ways … I feel the leadership wants to do something for the people, but they have to spend most of their energy and social resources on the political struggle. They are not 100 per cent focused on their work for the people, because 50 per cent of their time is taken up with internal struggles, about 30 per cent for personal interest, and only 20 per cent for the public. So the regime is not working efficiently. I don't feel there will be many changes made by the new leadership since the older generations are still there. The only hope would come from the generations of those born in the 1970s and 1980s. I don't know too much about politics, but I feel it is not good to only have one party ruling … China won't change overnight, it is like an old house that needs refurbishment and maintenance day-to-day; it is not better than demolition and rebuilding. I hope the new leadership can do more innovation. They won't be too bad, I hope."

Su Guixia

32, editor of environmental website, from Hubei

"The main problem is unfairness, and that people's basic rights cannot be assured, such as land rights, property rights, food security and environmental safety. I don't know if I am disappointed, and I'm not sure what the result will be if some wise leaders are replaced … The government should strictly implement the laws. It could at least make the people feel that they are safe to live in the country. To feel freedom, basic rights need to be protected. After that we can talk about being rich or happy. The government can learn from Hong Kong or Taiwan, and let the people enjoy a just and fair social environment. We have to hold on to certain hopes about the leadership, otherwise what do we have to hope for? We hope things go in a better direction. After all, there are many other countries around us worth learning from."

Li Zhiguo

70, retired architect, from Inner Mongolia

"The most disappointing thing is corruption. From the government to the ordinary people, everyone here attached to a code which represents a theory that nothing is real except money. However, currently ordinary people can earn money only by labour and working, but officials can earn money by trading their power. They can earn money illegally while still protecting the law. It is not possible to have change or political reform because the leadership is all about extending the leadership. I cannot see hope unless there is more freedom and supervision of the leadership. The government is always saying the people are the most powerful. But China negates individual rights, and people cannot co-ordinate within the society."

Guo Gong

46, artist, from Shanxi

"The thing most needed in this country is supervision of the Communist Party and an independent legal system, but this seems unlikely in a country with one-party rule, so the rules and regulations lack justice and are in the service of the rulers. The current Congress was too conservative; they don't have the ability to reform. The priority for them was to solidify their ruling position first. Deng Xiaoping was a reformer. If he were here, he would have pushed forward reform, though he did something wrong late in his rule by kicking out those powers as reformers. But now without political reform, China's economy is developing in a twisted way … I hope China can have an independent legal system, even if it is established on a corrupt base. And [I hope] we have democratic elections, [so] that other parties have space to develop, to at least monitor the government. I have no faith in the leadership. There is no reason for me to have any faith since there is no political transparency, nor in the media, so we don't know what is going on in the Congress. We only can try and work it out by rumours."