China’s ruling communists have opened a pivotal congress to initiate a power handover to new leaders with a broad promise of cleaner government.
But they kept off-stage the main event – the bargaining over seats in the new leadership.
All the main players were arrayed on the stage in the Great Hall of the People: President Hu Jintao, his successor Xi Jinping and a collection of retired party insiders.
A golden hammer and sickle, the Communist Party’s symbol, hung on the back wall. Yet in a nearly two-hour opening ceremony, scant mention was made of the transition or that in a week Mr Hu will step down as party chief in favour of Mr Xi in what would be only the second orderly transfer of power in 63 years of communist rule.
The congress is writ small the state of Chinese politics today. It is a largely ceremonial gathering of 2,200-plus delegates who meet while the real deal-making is done behind-the-scenes by the true power-holders.
The centrepiece event of the opening of the weeklong congress – a 90-minute speech by Mr Hu – served politics, allowing him to define his legacy after a decade in office, while marshalling his clout to install his allies in the collective leadership that Mr Xi will head.
“An important thing for him is to make sure that there’s no critical, no negative summary judgment of the past 10 years,” said Ding Xueliang, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Still, Mr Ding said, “90 % of the effort is on putting your people in place.”
The party’s public silence on a leadership transition that everyone knows is taking place and that politically minded Chinese have been talking about has deepened a palpable sense of public unease.
Many Chinese feel the country is at a turning point, in need of new ideas to deal with a slowing economy, growing piles of debt and rising public demands for more accountable, transparent government, if not democracy.
In signs of the public disquiet, at least four ethnic Tibetans in western China set themselves on fire on the eve of the congress in protests against Chinese rule of Tibetan areas, according to Tibetan exile groups.
At dawn in Tiananmen Square, next to the congress venue, a woman in her 30s threw pieces of torn paper into the air and shouted “bandits and robbers!” – a curse often levelled at corrupt local officials. She was taken away by the security forces, which have smothered all of Beijing for the congress.
In his speech, Mr Hu cited many of the challenges China faces – a rich-poor gap, environmentally ruinous growth and imbalanced development between prosperous cities and a struggling countryside. Yet he offered little fresh thinking to address them and said restoring a relatively high growth would be the best way to deal with public expectations.
Only on tackling rampant corruption did Mr Hu sound the alarm. He called on party members to be ethical and rein in their family members whose often showy displays of wealth have stoked public anger.
“Nobody is above the law,” Mr Hu said to the applause of the 2,309 delegates and invited guests, with Mr Xi and other party notables on the dais behind him. He later said: “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”
Always an occasion for divisive bargaining, the leadership transition has been made more fraught by scandals that have fuelled already high public cynicism that Chinese leaders are more concerned with power and wealth than government.
In recent months, one top leader, Bo Xilai, has been purged after his wife murdered a British businessman; a top aide to Mr Hu was sidelined after his son crashed a Ferrari he should not have been able to afford and foreign media reported that relatives of Mr Xi and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao had traded on their proximity to power to amass vast fortunes.
Public image aside, the scandals have especially weakened Mr Hu, on whose watch they occurred, in the power-broking over the next leadership.
In recent decades, the leadership line-ups have sought to balance different factions within the party. Who has prevailed won’t be apparent until next Thursday, a day after the congress, when the members of the Politburo Standing Committee appear before the media.
On stage with Mr Hu appeared one of his nemeses, his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who has supported Mr Xi and is angling to fill many of the seats in the leadership with his allies.