A Chinese communist party meeting this Saturday will likely signal that President Hu Jintao has consolidated his position as leader of Asia's largest power - a move that more formally ushers in the "Hu era" in China, a period that by party blueprint would last roughly until 2012.
The four-day plenum will also set the field for a new generation of Chinese party officials who are more aware of Western corporate management styles, yet who also profess greater loyalty to a party that under Mr. Hu seems more authoritarian and ideological, sources say, and less tolerant of liberal thought.
In some ways, it appears the party is trying to rein in and redirect the often rambunctious and chaotic capitalism of the past decade that characterized China under Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Official emphasis in the Hu era is on solving social tensions caused by a growing rich-poor gap and corruption. For the first time in memory, Chinese officials have been speaking openly of problems like "instability" - citing some 74,000 cases of riots or protests in 2004. Last week state-run media said that so far this year, some 1,826 police had been harmed, and 23 killed, trying to handle riots.
"We are going through a rethink of the recent past," says a party source. "The theory of the new generation is that if we stay on the current path, it will be hard to develop. We were told to get rich and we did. But that brought new problems as well, like health care in cities."
Hu became president in 2002 at the 16th party congress. He had been informally tapped in the early 1990s to succeed paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. But he spent a long waiting period under Mr. Jiang. It has also taken time for Hu's authority to be better established. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao were surrounded early on by various Jiang factions; Jiang himself only stepped down last year as head of China's military.
Yet Hu's position has been solidifying, sources confirm. The plenum this week carries the stamp of his "harmonious society" policy that seeks to refocus attention on the problems of ordinary people. China is now enforcing tougher laws on those who aren't paying taxes, and a new plan will raise the amount of non-taxable income, for example.
China's epic economic rise was instituted in the early 1990s by Deng Xiaoping who famously said that it was "OK to get rich," and that some "should get rich first." The coastal regions of China did get rich by development of infrastructure and a huge, cheap labor-fed manufacturing base.
Yet much of China remains poor, and its have-nots have often been restless.
The official plenum notice states that China faces "a crucial period in the next five years," a time when "the whole country should intensify an awareness of our problems, to think about our dangers," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Hu is also clearly the visible leader. The man whose formative political years were shaped during China's Cultural Revolution did not meet with President Bush last month due to Hurricane Katrina. But the two will meet next month in Beijing and again in January in Washington.
And next week Hu inaugurates a planned space launch that will send two astronauts into the heavens for a five-day orbit - making China only the third nation to achieve this level of space proficiency.
In China, party changes and their causes or meanings are rarely known outside inner circles. They are almost never a subject of public discussion.
Nor, since state media is controlled by the party propaganda department, can the party be considered accountable or transparent as in liberal democracies. Yet over time, patterns and themes do become apparent.
In the past year Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong, considered Jiang's most efficient and capable protégé, has apparently joined forces with Hu, according to the New York Times. Mr. Zeng, vice president of China, is said to be quietly enforcing obedience to Hu inside the party. If true, the development is significant since it means not only that the extensive networks of Jiang loyalists are bending to Hu - but so is Zeng himself. Two years ago Zeng, a consummate party insider, was talked about as Hu's most formidable potential usurper.
In another sign of political maneuvering, Reuters, citing two independent unnamed sources, reports that Hu is pushing to promote a possible successor named Li Keqiang. Such a move would be a show of strength for Hu, who was not expected to begin tackling this so soon.
Hu himself has emerged as more devoted to party doctrine and ideology than previously thought, having launched several campaigns to improve the party image and authority. He has complained that ideological belief in socialism has been deteriorating in China, prompting a major reeducation campaign.
"Under Deng, ideology was being replaced by reform, and we knew which way things were going," says one source with ties to the party. "Now, ideology is back, but we don't always know which ideology is correct. It has become factionalized.
"The consequences of the campaign are quite unclear. One result though is a marginalization of so-called 'liberals' who wish to speak on their own, and further restrictions on foreign news sources entering China."