AFP – China’s all-powerful and secretive Communist Party on Thursday officially opened its 18th congress to unveil a new slate of leaders who will oversee the world’s number two economy for the next decade.
Party number two Wu Bangguo declared the congress open inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where more than 2,200 delegates will meet for a week and install Vice President Xi Jinping as the party’s new general-secretary.
Following the opening, President and current party chief Hu Jintao began a nationally televised address on the party’s performance since the last congress in 2007.
“We have overcome numerous difficulties and risks and achieved new successes in building a modern, prosperous society,” Hu said, after being clapped onto the stage and bowing to the massed ranks of delegates.
But Xi, the son of a revolutionary hero who has been Hu’s heir apparent since 2007, will take over at a challenging time with China facing a rare slowdown in economic growth and the party fractured by top-level scandal.
The murder and corruption scandal surrounding former regional boss Bo Xilai, who has been ejected from the party and is now awaiting trial, exposed divisions in the leadership and related back-room jockeying for top positions.
The delegates drawn from the Communist Party’s ranks of 82 million members gathered amid intense security around Tiananmen Square for the congress, which runs to November 14, when the new leaders will be presented.
The party elite appear to have settled on the new leadership line-up in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body.
The committee will be steered by Xi, 59, who has previously headed some of China’s most economically dynamic and reform-minded areas.
But even the best-informed China-watchers say relatively little is known about Xi and how he will confront challenges facing the nation both at home and abroad, as it increasingly challenges the United States in various arenas.
Few expect Xi’s ascent to be thwarted, and after taking the party’s helm he will be installed next March as China’s state president in place of Hu. But ahead of the congress, authorities were taking no chances.
Areas of central Beijing near the Great Hall of the People were swarming with police, and authorities have reportedly taken such measures as banning sales of knives and even ping pong balls, for fear they might be used to spread “reactionary” messages.
Hundreds of activists have been put under house arrest, rights groups say, while taxi drivers have been told to lock their back windows apparently to prevent passengers from throwing out flyers with political messages.
A state-run newspaper published a survey Wednesday suggesting eight out of 10 Chinese in major cities want political reform, adding to mounting calls for change of some sort in how the corruption-ridden Communist Party runs China.
The contrast with how the United States manages its political affairs was laid bare with President Barack Obama’s re-election triumph, and did not go unnoticed among commentators on China’s wildly popular social media websites.
The interest of ordinary Chinese in the US election had reached a “new high”, one posting said, because “the Chinese people have given up their own affairs… they are not allowed to handle them!”