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China: Plenum Could Bring Leadership Changes

China's ruling Communist Party leaders, led by Hu Jintao, began a four-day closed-door plenum in Beijing today that is due to set policy for the next year and could bring some leadership changes.

Prague, 16 September 2004 (RFE/RL) - The main theme of this year's plenum is stability: how best to ensure the Chinese Communist Party's continued hold on power while addressing social and economic problems.

In recent months, many Communist officials have called on party members to be more responsive to public needs amid an antigraft crackdown. Accordingly, the 198 members of the Communist Party Central Committee are expected to devote much time to the issue of corruption and improving the party's image.

"The main purpose of this year's meeting -- as stated -- is an attempt to improve [the] party's ruling capacity, by which they mean both a consolidation of the party's ability to actually control the state but also to put a lid on issues such as potential economic downturn, corruption, and so forth," according to Rana Mitter, an expert on Chinese politics at Oxford University in Britain.

China has received a lot of attention in recent years over its expanding economy, but the boom has only affected part of the country. The growing disparity between the new urban elite and hundreds of millions of peasants in rural areas has already led to social unrest. China's leaders are concerned this could develop into antigovernment demonstrations if the party is not seen as addressing the problem.

"The great fear is that as China gets richer, China is also becoming more unequal," Mitter said. "There are a lot more [people in the] middle class. Some people put the number of middle class [people] in the hundreds of millions these days. But the peasantry is also finding that simultaneously, it's becoming much poorer, particularly in the less agriculturally fertile parts of China. And the growing gap between rich and poor in China is clearly very worrying to people like President Hu."

The idea that the party must not lose control of social policy may have been the reason that Hu, in a television address, said yesterday that copying Western-style political models would lead to a "dead end." Hu said China's current one-party system was "superior" and reforms should be undertaken within its framework.

Any major decisions reached at the plenum are not expected to be made public until the meeting ends on 19 September.

One much-anticipated move may be the political retirement of former president and party leader Jiang Zemin, who now heads the powerful military. This would complete the generational transfer of power begun in 2002.

But as Mitter noted, even if Jiang -- who is considered a rival to Hu -- does retire, China's policies are not expected to change dramatically.

"There clearly has been some pressure from the group led by President Hu for [Jiang] to step down from that position and the most likely personnel change that could come from the [plenum] would be the announcement that Jiang is in fact going to step down," Mitter said. "On the other hand, that stepping down or not is unlikely to lead to any very major change in policy in areas such as, say, the future of Taiwan. It's really more of a question of personalities rather than a change in actual policy."