Hu Jintao, China’s president, on Friday urged the country’s ruling communist party to maintain its half century-long grip on power by ensuring it remained the most “progressive” force in Chinese politics and society.

Mr Hu’s speech, made in his role as party secretary – a position that outranks that of president – was delivered in a televised ceremony to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the party in 1921 in Shanghai.

“A political party that was advanced in the past does not mean that it can remain advanced today; and a political party that is advanced today does not mean that it will continue to be advanced in the future,” he said.

Xinhua, the official news agency, in a commentary with the speech, said the party had succeeded because it had “associated Marxism with China’s realities, throbbed with the pulse of the times, emancipated the mind . . . and always represented the fundamental interests of the broadest majority of the people”.

The speech in Beijing was aimed at the party faithful and couched in political language largely meaningless to the populace at large.

But it will be closely monitored by insiders trying to divine the direction of policy under Mr Hu and especially his relative standing among other top leaders jostling for influence.

One mainland scholar said few of Mr Hu’s own ideas were reflected in the speech, which made the occasion for him a “step backwards”.

The key expression used to describe the party, and repeated more than 100 times, was “progressive”, a word symbolising the ruling elite’s untestable assertion that its members alone have the ability and wisdom to run modern China.

This phrase, according to a number of China scholars, was overly associated with another high-ranked leader, Zeng Qinghong, who oversaw an enforced “rejuvenation” campaign for members over the past 18 months to bolster party unity and control.

David Kelly, at the East Asian Institute in Singapore, said: “There was a failure to come through with [Mr Hu’s] own intellectual property – he has not created his own brand, but rather allowed someone else’s to occupy a lot of space.”

The party retains an unsurpassed network in the country’s governing organs, with 70.3m members, including 2.5m new entrants who joined last year. About one in five members are under 35 years old.

In recent years, it has opened its doors wider to entrepreneurs and pushed to establish party committees in private companies, which represent the fastest growing and most productive part of a booming economy.

The party also continues to target the emerging elite, counting as members 50 per cent of graduate students at Tsinghua University in Beijing, sometimes referred to as “China’s MIT”.

In what may be a reflection of China’s hybrid capitalist-communist system, the growth in party members has been mirrored since the turn of the century by a similar increase in the numbers of individual share trading accounts in China, which now stands at 71.2m.

Chinese top-level politics remain opaque, but some of the behind the scenes jostling will be forced into public view ahead of the once-every-five-years party congress, scheduled for the end of next year.

Mr Hu is expected to retain his position as party secretary for a second term, but most interest will focus on whom among the next generation of leaders will be promoted to serve directly under him.

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