Mon, Oct 15, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Beijing gears up for Communist Party Congress

AP , BEIJING

All eyes will be on a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party when delegates from across the country gather today for the start of their party congress, which is held once every five years.

Li Keqiang (李克強), an economist by training, is a trusted aide long seen as Chinese President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) favorite to succeed him. Hu is not expected to step down until 2012 at the earliest. But at this congress, the party leadership will select a small group from which the next leader is all but certain to be chosen. The 52-year-old Li is widely tipped to be among them.

Li's rise is a sign of how much China is changing. Like Hu, Li belongs to a new generation of Chinese leaders who are pragmatic, steeped in economic experience and increasingly have backgrounds in finance and law, in contrast to the engineers and soldiers who preceded them.

Their leadership structure is more collegial, and their focus is on the economy, not on the communist political system they have inherited. In fact, their position on political reform and democracy is unclear -- they never speak publicly on these issues.

"China is at a turning point and Li is the sort of person with the ambition to achieve new goals," said Wang Juntao (王軍濤), a political dissident who was a classmate of Li's at Peking University.

The party congress is a days-long affair marked by lengthy speeches and carefully orchestrated meetings at which the 2,017 delegates profess their agreement with the party line. The most dramatic moment is reserved for the final day, when the small group chosen by party leaders will stride on stage in precise order to reveal the ruling lineup for the next five years.

Li's ascension is by no means assured. Hu needs to persuade other leaders that the low-key Li deserves promotion to the ruling lineup. If he fails, Li will have virtually no chance of succeeding him.

And Li has rivals, including Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping (習近平), who is also angling for a seat on the standing committee. The son of a leading revolutionary, the 54-year-old Xi hosted Hu on a high-profile visit to Shanghai on Oct. 1, China's national day.

With the old revolutionaries gone from the political stage, no one, not even Hu, is considered powerful enough to force through their choice of successor.

"Li certainly has a good chance to become Hu's successor, but he needs to be tested in the next five years," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leadership issues at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "A lot of things can happen."

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