The weeklong congress is the start of a carefully choreographed but still fraught power transfer in which President Hu Jintao and most of the senior leadership will begin to relinquish office. Vice President Xi Jinping, the anointed heir for the past five years, came a step closer to power Wednesday, being named the congress' secretary-general at a preparatory meeting.
Meeting in the Great Hall of the People, the congress seems drawn from another time. It's a public gathering of 2,268 delegates drawn from the 82 million-member party where the real deal-making is done by a few dozen power-brokers behind the scenes, even as China is ever more connected to the world through trade and the Internet.
Coming so soon after the U.S. presidential election climaxed with President Barack Obama's re-election, the congress has drawn unfavorable comparisons from politically minded Chinese.
"I am doing nothing but staring at the television before Obama gets re-elected. As for China's party congress, there is no need for me to worry. On the contrary, it would be a waste of my time," Xu Xiaoping, a celebrity entrepreneur who co-founded a successful chain of English cram schools, said on a Chinese version of Twitter where he has 6 million followers.
To many Chinese, China is at an inflection point. Its old model of heavily state-directed growth that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and made China an economic powerhouse is sputtering in the face of rising domestic debt and a weak global economy. Meanwhile, the government has to contend with the public's continued expectations of higher living standards and for less corruption and greater accountability, if not outright democracy.
Whether the new leaders want to move China in a new direction is not known. Xi and other top candidates for the new leadership have forged their careers as capable administrators in provinces and bureaucracies, not as policy trail-blazers. Should ambitious change be on their agenda, they will have to confront vested interests within their ranks: cosseted state industries and conservative officials grown prosperous and powerful under the current system.
One thing the party appears to be ruling out is a major shift toward a more open, democratic political system, despite appeals in recent months from commentators, retired party members and government think tanks.
"The leading position of the Communist Party in China is a decision made by history and by the people," congress spokesman Cai Mingzhao told reporters on Wednesday. He pointed to China's rise as an economic power and said, "It speaks fully to the strong leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the fact that the political system suits China's national reality."
The congress itself is unlikely to give Xi and his colleagues a mandate for sweeping reform. They have been engaged with Hu, retired party elders and influential senior politicians and military commanders in divisive bargaining, made worse by a pair of scandals. Politburo member Bo Xilai was purged after an aide disclosed that Bo's wife had murdered a British businessman. One of Hu's top lieutenants was also sidelined after his son died crashing a Ferrari, a sign of corruption.
A likely result of the back-and-forth is a leadership that balances interest groups, and over the past decade that has been a recipe for plodding, incremental policy.
The centerpiece of the congress opening, a lengthy speech by Hu, is an uncertain indicator of where the new leadership wants to take China. In the early decades of reform, such speeches provided ideological cover as the party tried to break away from the dogma of central planning and experiment with freer markets. More recently, the documents have become ways for past leaders to constrain their heirs by stressing continuity.
In a preview of the speech given to senior officials in July and excerpted and analyzed in state media, Hu stressed the economy remains key. He said getting growth back to a relatively high rate remained crucial to meeting demands from the public - most clearly evidenced by large-scale strikes and protests, or what he called "contradictions."
Cai, the congress spokesman, ticked off a list of what Hu's team had accomplished - wider access to state-supported education through the ninth grade, an expanded social safety net and the start of a nationwide low-cost housing sector.
"The past decade has witnessed the greatest improvement in people's livelihoods in the history of China's development," Cui said. "We will make guaranteeing and improving the people's well-being the guide and aim of what we do."