China’s ruling Communist Party closed a pivotal congress on Wednesday that put Vice President Xi Jinping a step closer to taking power for the next decade in a landmark transition.
The week-long Communist Party gathering in the cavernous Great Hall of the People ended after its 2,200 delegates from around the country selected a new Central Committee of 205 party members.
Xi was renamed to the committee, a widely expected development that was singled out by state media, suggesting he was firmly positioned to be announced as the party’s top leader on Thursday.
The week-long forum ended with a show of unity by the delegates in the vast red-draped hall, who stood before hearing a rendition of the “Internationale”, a socialist anthem.
The last word went to President Hu Jintao, who had opened the meeting with an address warning that the party faces “collapse” if it cannot halt the rampant corruption that has undermined its legitimacy.
“I now announce that the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress has come to a victorious conclusion,” said Hu, the outgoing party leader.
“The congress has elected a new central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones.”
The main business of the congress, which is held every five years, was to select a new circle of leaders at a time when China faces major economic challenges and growing scrutiny from its citizens.
The party did not immediately release the full Central Committee list but state news agency Xinhua reported the appointments of a number of officials from each of the two main factions believed jockeying for power.
They included several tipped for further promotion to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, which currently has nine members but could be slimmed to seven.
The elite committee is expected to be headed by Xi, with second place going to Vice Premier Li Keqiang who is slated to become premier in March.
However, analysts said only the make-up and pecking order of the standing committee – which will be revealed on Thursday when members walk out before the media – will provide certainty about the factional outcome.
In one corner is octogenarian former president Jiang Zemin, who is seen as a kingmaker after making a surprise political comeback, while the other faction comprises Hu’s allies.
Xi is seen as a consensus figure who leans toward Jiang, while Li is considered to be in Hu’s faction.
Analysts say that despite rivalries between the camps, which are largely divided on patronage lines, they broadly agree China must reposition its economy away from a dependence on exports, while maintaining a firm hand on dissent.
Xi’s ascension has been expected since 2007, when he was given a position on the standing committee. That indicated his status as heir apparent to Hu, who officially relinquishes party control this week.
Xi is expected to succeed Hu as the country’s president next March.
Authorities have ramped up security in Beijing and on rambunctious media websites to prevent any criticism during the gathering.
Commentary on the congress on China’s popular social networking sites was tightly controlled, with many entries blocked, but some managed to circumvent controls to post cynical comments.
“Hurry up and close, I want Google back,” one user wrote, referring to reports of recurring problems accessing the search giant during the congress that has been widely blamed on censors.
Leading dissident Hu Jia, who said he was forced to leave Beijing during the congress after authorities threatened his family, posted an online letter criticising the party.
“The Chinese Communist Party is not the ruling party,” the letter said. “The ruling party must go through a democratic election to govern legitimately.”
Xi will take over at a time when China’s powerhouse economy is suffering a rare slowdown, threatening the party’s key claim to legitimacy – continually improving the livelihoods of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Leaders also face localised unrest across China, typically sparked by public rage at corruption, government abuses or the myriad manifestations of anger from the millions left out of the country’s newfound prosperity.
Anti-Chinese unrest in ethnic Tibetan areas has also flared with a spate of self-immolation protests over the past week.
The congress unanimously approved an amendment stressing it would take a hard line against corruption in the party and another in support of ecological protection.
The run-up to this year’s congress was unsettled by the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a one-time political star whose ambitions were torpedoed when his wife was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman.