China’s communist elite began gathering in Beijing on Friday night, readying for the quinquennial congress that will consecrate the country’s leadership until 2012 and anoint the next generation of party bosses.

The 2,217 delegates to the congress have been winnowed down from the party’s 73.4m members through a tightly controlled process in which representatives are selected from approved lists of candidates.

The line-up of provincial and city party bosses, ministers, state enterprise executives and senior generals has been leavened by a few high-profile celebrity delegates, including actors, sports stars and China’s first astronaut.

The congress opens on Monday and takes place mainly in secret, in the Great Hall of the People and tightly guarded hotels. The closing date has yet to be announced, but the 2002 congress lasted a week.

Beijing has been awash with almost as many rumours as there are delegates in the lead-up to the conclave about changes to the leadership’s inner circle, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and other senior posts.

Hu Jintao is presiding over his first congress as party secretary, amid a hazy evolution of the conventions of elite Chinese politics driven by the absence of old-style party barons who could dictate the choice of new leaders.

Mr Hu and Jiang Zemin, his predecessor, were both in effect chosen by Deng Xiaoping, but the modern party does not have a figure of his revolutionary stature and policy record who could do the same today.

The party now is more consensus-driven, rendering decision-making slower and more deliberate, and requiring extensive balancing and co-operation among competing factions, personalities and regions.

China’s extraordinary economic growth in the last five years and the country’s growing global footprint has also made governing more difficult and complex.

Mr Hu has gradually consolidated power since becoming party secretary and president in 2002 and 2003 respectively, but he does not appear to have the authority to impose his will on the selection of a new politburo.

Mr Hu may attempt to make a virtue out of such limits, by ensuring that a number of potential successors are positioned to compete for the top post in 2012, possibly in an internal party election.

He has promoted “internal democracy” in an effort to lift the professional standards of officials, limit opportunities for corruption and make the government more responsive to public opinion.

The prospect of genuinely competitive internal elections is controversial, however, for fear that they will formally institutionalise infighting within the party.

“Many people think it will not happen because it will open the way to factional politics,” says Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But even if one person is singled out [as a potential future leader], that person will be severely tested in the next five years. Governing is getting more complicated.”

The extent to which Mr Hu has been forced to compromise will be evident only when the new standing committee is unveiled, a moment of high drama that marks the close of the congress.

The new standing committee is unveiled with theatrical pomp when the new members are paraded on a stage in the Great Hall of the People in order of their newly established seniority.

The two favoured candidates for elevation to the senior ranks of committee are Li Keqiang, the party secretary of Liaoning and a long-time Hu ally, and Xi Jinping, who took over the leadership of Shanghai after a recent corruption scandal.

Although competition between the pair cannot be reduced to a binary factional contest, Mr Xi is more closely associated with Jiang Zemin, the former president, and his growth model favouring coastal provinces and the private sector.

The policy implications of any leadership change depend in some respects on the personalities who rise to the top but even then they are difficult to tease out.

Even if he cannot secure the politburo line-up he wants, Mr Hu, with Wen Jiabao, the premier, has already recalibrated economic policy to focus more on the environment and social spending.

The impact of this policy change has been limited so far in an economy in which domestic demand still lags well behind the rate of growth in investment and exports. But Messrs Hu and Wen may be able to push their agenda more forcibly if they emerge from the congress with a more powerful internal mandate.

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