China begins a once-in-decade leadership transition this week when officials meet Thursday for the 18th Communist Party Congress. The stakes are higher than previous transitions because of growing public concerns about corruption and the party’s lack of transparency. Just how the new leaders will respond to the challenges remains a mystery.
As China gears up for its biggest political party in 10 years, its leaders are trying to keep the public focus on the party’s accomplishments and the country’s bright future.
The congress is the closest thing the communist country has to the excitement of political campaigns in democratic nations, where policies are discussed and debated ahead of time, said David Kelly of China Policy, a research group that monitors Chinese views on the economy, reform and other topics.
“Even though we foresee at the moment without final confirmation that there will be a fairly conservative team, they are not facing routine questions, they are facing some momentous questions,” said Kelly.
China has seen growing tensions with its neighbors in recent months, in particular Japan, about disputed islands in the East China Sea. Its massive economy - the second largest in the world - also is facing uncertainties. Kelly said that has helped strengthen the case for reform.
“Reform in China is not a mild issue, it's going to hurt some people and benefit others. And the balance of these two is going to be decided by the people who now step up into politburo's standing committee and the other important parts of the party,” he said.
How much China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping is willing to make a break with the past is unclear. Xi’s father was politically prominent and that makes him what the Chinese call a "princeling."
Many people in China tend to view princelings as elitist. Chinese economist Hu Xingdou said princelings tend to be more reform-minded, though, than other party factions, which are cautious and afraid of losing power.
“The princelings are different, since they were kids they thought that this country was theirs, because it was their parents that laid the foundation for this world. For them the ownership is clear, this country is theirs,” said Hu Xingdou.
But some princelings, such as Bo Xilai, have taken that sense of entitlement to an extreme, and because of his case and countless others, there is growing public discontent in China about wealth inequality and corruption.
Bo was once a rising political star in China, who now faces a wide range of accusations from corruption and other wrongdoing. On Sunday, he was formally expelled from the Communist Party and is expected to soon face criminal charges.
Although most analysts say they do not expect to see any dramatic reforms from China’s new leaders right away, they do hope for more transparency.
One significant change would be for officials from the top to the bottom to make their finances public, said lawyer Wang Cailiang.
“The moment they open up the finances of public servants to public scrutiny and once they install a system like that, then it will be a very significant change for the Chinese public," said Wang. "There are many who hope for multiparty political system, but I don’t think that is key. The key here is that if you are a civil servant then you have to submit to public scrutiny. If you don't, you will have to step out of office.”
Analysts say that although there are many ways officials could make sure such changes never happen, popular sentiment for clean governance is growing.