New chiefs, policies on agenda at secret talks
The mainland's top communist leaders began gathering in the northern summer resort of Beidaihe for secret talks that could finalise decisions on the party leadership lineup and key policy issues for the next five years.
The presence in the resort of Jia Qinglin , chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, sparked speculation that the secretive annual gathering of top cadres was under way.
Last night's CCTV news showed Mr Jia, ranked No 4 in the party hierarchy, speaking at a training session for CPPCC members in the seaside town 250km east of Beijing - traditionally a venue for top-level power plays before crucial party caucuses.
Other politburo members, including President Hu Jintao , who will be in Hong Kong for three days from today for the 10th anniversary of the city's handover, could arrive later, although their movements are being kept secret.
Mr Jia called on members of the country's top advisory body to 'studiously study' Mr Hu's speech on Monday, which gave a full account of his political theory. It was widely considered to have set the tone for the 17th party congress, due in the autumn.
In the coming weeks Mr Hu, Mr Jia and other top party leaders will swim, relax and have long rounds of meetings to set policy for the country.
The top party leadership lineup has been debated for months. The intensity rose after Huang Ju , ranked sixth in the Politburo Standing Committee, died last month.
It is also expected that some ageing leaders including Vice-President Zeng Qinghong , ranked fifth, and Mr Jia, could step down from the standing committee to make way for some fresh blood.
According to a spate of rumours, those competing for top positions include Li Keqiang , party chief of Liaoning province ; He Guoqiang , head of the communist party's personnel department; and Li Yuanchao , party boss of Jiangsu province .
These decisions are likely to be finalised in Beidaihe's beachside bungalows.
Despite reports that Mr Hu had put a stop to the annual summer meetings at Beidaihe after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, the summer resort is still on the political radar - although on a lower profile.
Many analysts believe that Mr Hu's decision to abolish the luxury Beidaihe ritual was, in equal measure, a public-relations gimmick and smooth manoeuvring to reduce the influence of the old guard.
The move, signalling Mr Hu's determination to be more transparent and accord more respect to the rule of law, is one of those initiatives he has made to distinguish his administration from that of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin .