China's leaders will seek ways to narrow the economic and social rifts threatening long-term growth at a conclave which could also signal who will succeed them in running the world's most populous country.
The ruling Communist Party's Central Committee meeting in Beijing will set key parts of the next five-year development plan starting in 2011, which President Hu Jintao has said must promote “inclusive growth,” and encourage more domestic household demand to shore up GDP growth as external demand flags.
That will not be easy for an economy grown used to expanding on the back of cheap labor and exports. Workers and farmers will need higher wages, improved welfare and more affordable housing, making greater demands on the government to deliver.
“China has entered a different stage now,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group.
“Now we're getting into the difficult part when it's much more difficult for the Party to satisfactorily respond to popular demand.”
The four-day meeting in west Beijing, which started on Friday, may also approve promotions to firm up officials' prospects in an emerging leadership to succeed Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.
The results will be announced only after the meeting ends on Monday and state media issues a broad summary. The full details of the five-year plan will appear only next year. But whatever their eventual pecking order, China's emerging leaders are likely to stick to the government's current formula of refocusing the economy on domestic demand and avoiding bold political experiments.
“In a way, all these fifth-generation leaders are groomed as a group, as a cohort,” said Bo Zhiyue, a researcher at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute, referring to the next generation of leaders such as Xi.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly called for more urgent reform of the political system to give citizens more say. But there are no signs the Party meeting will head down that path. Recent condemnation of the Nobel Peace Prize for dissident Liu Xiaobo has shown how far the Party is from embracing the democratic changes some critics want.