The Communist Party of China opens a milestone meeting Friday that will usher in a new generation of leaders; allow wealthy capitalists to join a party that started as a peasant revolution; and mark the first regular, orderly transfer of power in modern China.
In the past 13 years, guided by President Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party has avoided the change wrought in nearly every other one-party state the Soviet Union, Taiwan, Mexico, Hungary, Poland. All are now multiparty. As China moves into a global economy with an 8 percent growth rate, and as the 1989 Tiananmen Square cataclysm moves further into the past, China shows no signs of altering a political system that still controls all aspects of official life.
Yet even though the 16th Party Congress is the most significant political event in China for a decade, what will transpire over the next seven days remains largely a mystery. What's expected is that Mr. Jiang will step down, and the most powerful governing body in China, the Standing Committee of the Communist Party, may lose all but one of its seven members the youthful Hu Jintao, who is expected to take over from Jiang.
But the main question is how far China will move from rule by a main figure Jiang toward the collective rule represented by the "core" of the Fourth Generation, Hu Jintao. Chinese sources say that, in the final hour, Jiang is emerging as the "power behind the throne," due to his ability to stack the Standing Committee with as many as four protégés.
At least for a time, some experts say, the outcome may be divided and unclear rule in China, with factionalism and competing centers of authority in this country of 1.3 billion that craves stability but also desires to be the preeminent power of the coming century.
"The ramifications go beyond a change of guard. This is the major test to see whether China can move toward a peaceful, orderly, institutionalized form of government," says Cheng Li, an expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, and author of a recent study of China's leaders. "We will know if the move from a strongman style to a collective leadership is complete. But I'm quite worried about rumors that Huang Ju and Jia Qinglin [Jiang's men] are going to join the Standing Committee."
Now, as the 16th Congress opens, stability is the emblematic word in Beijing. Party experts here say the goal of party leaders, as China undergoes a major change of personnel, is to move slowly, cautiously, moderately.
The role of the Party Congress is considered one of legitimacy. The meeting will attempt to show the Chinese and the world that broad consensus and harmony exist among the 2,200 delegates from all over China, described by officials here yesterday as "advanced model figures and backbone leaders" for the changes to be announced next week.
Yet behind the scenes, in the highest echelons, harmony is not the main state of affairs. Rather, it is the continuation of a succession struggle now 10 years old.
Hu Jintao, a scrupulously invisible figure as Jiang's No. 2, was picked in 1992 by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to take over the reins of China. Most of the members of the Standing Committee, "third generation" leaders like Premier Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng, will step down due to an age requirement. But Jiang appears to have appointed a number of protégés chief among them, Zeng Qinghong, a consummate and tough dealmaker and Jiang's right-hand man who may make it difficult for Hu to consolidate his rule.
In recent days, rumors have spread that the Standing Committee even may expand to nine members to accommodate Hu supporters. In numerous interviews with well-placed Beijingers stock brokers, mid-level Party members, bureaucrats, and scholars most said the committee will expand.
A significant skirmish is over Jiang's role in something called the Central Military Commission. The CMC is one of three key bodies (the Secretariat and the Disciplinary Committee are the other two) run by the elites in the Standing Committee and the influential 22-member Politburo.
In addition to his role as president and party chief, Jiang is also currently head of the CMC, and is known to want to stay in that position. Should he do so, insiders say, he will wield a free-floating base of power whose accountability to the main organs of rule, the Standing Committee and the politburo, will be nebulous.
Along with nominal control of the Standing Committee, Jiang would hold enormous weight and influence outside the legal framework. "That might be a little dangerous," offers a Western-based expert in Beijing.
How such an outcome would play in the ordinary rank and file is unknown. But it could complicate matters in a system that has been on hold, awaiting clarification at the top.
"The government has been stopped for the past year. People have done no work, really," says the editor of an intellectual Beijing journal. "Everyone has been waiting. No one has wanted to step up, until it is clear what the path will be."
Party officials yesterday said the meeting would last seven days. Tomorrow, delegates meet at the Great Hall for a "work report" by Jiang expected to cover economics, social problems, China's development of western regions, and foreign investment. The meeting will break up into 38 different working groups, and then reconvene to approve the report and vote for new Central Committee members (193 delegates and 151 alternates) and the next Disciplinary Committee.
The following day will present the first plenum, where a vote for the top leader and the Standing Committee will be consummated.