DOHA (IPS/GIN) — China’s ruling Communist Party has launched its national congress, a pivotal event that ushers in a new set of top leaders for the next decade.
More than 2,200 delegates gathered at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Thursday for the start of the week-long session that will install Vice President Xi Jinping as the party’s new general-secretary.
The meeting is the start of a carefully choreographed but still fraught power transfer in which President Hu Jintao and most of the senior leadership begin to relinquish office to younger leaders.
Addressing the gathering, Hu said that corruption threatened the party and the state, and promised political reform.
“If we fail to handle this issue (corruption) well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” Hu said in an opening speech.
“Reform of the political structure is an important part of China’s overall reform. We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure and make people’s democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice.”
Patrick Chovanec, an economics professor at Tsinghua University, told Al Jazeera that he doubted China would implement major reforms.
“When we hear the words political reform, we tend to think elections and independent judiciary. Those things are not really what they mean,” he said.
“They mean perhaps having two party members running for an office, instead of one party member.”
“I don’t think that necessarily we may see big steps. But maybe we will because with the rising middle class in China, there is a lot of pressure for people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect them.”
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Beijing, said that his speech also emphasized economic development and improving the country’s education system.
He said that Hu’s speech noticed “the importance of spreading education as widely as possible. He says education is the engine by which developments within China can continue”.
“And it has been ten years of rule which has seen massive changes in China in economic development, unprecedented since perhaps the British industrial revolution way back in the 18th century,” he added.
Hu will give up his role as party chief to anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping. Xi then takes over state duties at the annual meeting of parliament in March.
Xi, 59, has been second in command to Hu since 2008.
Along with the rest of the future leadership, he will take the helm amid growing pressure for the party to reform to curb rising corruption and encourage economic growth, which recently slowed to its lowest quarterly rate since 2009.
The congress is a public gathering of 2,268 delegates drawn from the 82 million-member party where the real deal-making is done by a few dozen power-brokers behind the scenes.
Eight out of 10 Chinese want political reform, according to a survey published on Wednesday by a state-run newspaper.
The poll, published by the Global Times newspaper, found that 81 per cent of people in seven major cities said they supported political reform, with 66 per cent feeling the government should face greater public scrutiny.
The Global Times is linked to the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, and the decision to publish the survey appeared to indicate the party wanted to be seen to be acknowledging the calls.
But while party leaders routinely express vague lip service to some form of future political reform, the Communists retain iron-clad control of Chinese power and multi-party democracy is firmly off the agenda.
Preparations for the congress have been rocked by the months-long controversy over former senior leader Bo Xilai.
Bo, the former party boss in the central city of Chongqing, was once seen as a candidate for promotion to the party’s top ranks. But he was brought down earlier this year by murder allegations against his wife.