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Peking dressed up for the Party

Bright pink and red banners are appearing on the streets of Peking exhorting everyone with such slogans as "Improve the quality of the citizens' morality". Some 2,000 delegates to the Communist Party Congress, held once every five years, have been selected, including 500 "model workers, outstanding experts, and heroes from all walks of life". But one key bit of information is missing: when on earth is the Congress going to start?

China watchers, diplomats and journalists living in Peking these days no longer greet each other with polite inquiries about each other's summer holidays, but with a plaintive: "What have you heard about the start of the Congress?"

The importance of this political event is huge: this is when the top jobs are sorted out for the next five years, and when China will outline its goals for the new century, including a revamping of the massive state enterprise sector.

But that does not mean that the Chinese government intends to give us much warning of when it will occur. One recent headline about the forthcoming event read: "Reform and open policies to remain." Not that open, unfortunately. It is probably going to start within a couple of weeks or so, but don't quote me on that.

China's obsessive secrecy about its political process is still well-entrenched. This week, the foreign media around the world was invited to send in applications to cover the Congress - the only problem being that none of them have been given any clue to when they should plan to be in Peking for this important occasion. Never mind that it is peak tourist season and flights need to be booked.

The official media is already in Congress mode. The China Daily has been running a series of articles outlining the "monumental success" of President Jiang Zemin and his fellow leaders in running the country since 1992.

It should be interesting when it does finally start. Mr Jiang wants to put his stamp on the post-Deng era with an ambitious plan to turn more state-owned enterprises into shareholding companies - with some semantic manoeuvrings that this is just another form of public ownership. It would have been political heresy 20 years ago. But then, in those days, no one even knew a party congress was expected until it was all over.