Today we begin a four-day series coinciding with this week's Communist Party central committee meeting, looking at the issues and personalities likely to dominate in the run-up to the 17th party congress next year. Wang Xiangwei charts the direction President Hu Jintao is taking As more than 300 members of the Communist Party's elite central committee began their annual, four-day, closed-door session in Beijing yesterday, their main agenda was, as had been announced, to discuss ways of 'building a harmonious socialist society'. This benign-sounding subject belies heavy political undertones and far-reaching implications for the leadership of President Hu Jintao and the future direction of the Communist Party as well as the mainland's growth pattern. The meeting is crucial to Mr Hu's leadership and his place in history as he moulds his legacy less than two years after gaining absolute power. The officials, huddling in the military-run Jingxi Hotel in Beijing's western suburbs, are expected to approve a policy blueprint elevating Mr Hu's 'harmonious society' slogan to official theory. The new doctrine will boost Mr Hu's authority and herald another drive to shore up the Communist Party's claim to legitimacy, which has been greatly undermined by the collapse of Marxist ideology and the emergence of murkier aspects of the economy marked by rampant official corruption, a widening wealth gap and simmering public unrest. At the meeting Mr Hu will face minimal resistance in pushing through his policy agenda and setting a new direction for party policy, particularly after his recent decision to sack Chen Liangyu, the powerful party boss in Shanghai. That dealt a crushing blow to his main political rivals, the Shanghai clique led by his predecessor Jiang Zemin, of which Mr Chen was a key member. The meeting is also expected to authorise the 17th party congress, probably in autumn next year, when a new generation of leaders, including Mr Hu's anointed successors, will be elected. It marks the start of a long run of intense politicking and jockeying for power. While it is far too early to pinpoint winners and losers, the broad contours of a power shake-up are emerging, with signs that Mr Hu, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong and Premier Wen Jiabao will have the most say in deciding a new line-up of officials at the congress next year. This means the further rise of officials from the Communist Youth League, Mr Hu's power base, and those from the loose group of so-called 'princelings' - children of communist veterans - such as Mr Zeng, against the backdrop of the irreversible decline of the Shanghai clique. So what is Mr Hu's theory of 'building a harmonious society' all about? The catch-all phrase covers Mr Hu's efforts to spread wealth and narrow the mainland's income gap by rectifying the economic excesses of the past 20 years and abandoning Mr Jiang's so-called elitist policy approach, which favoured faster economic growth, entrepreneurs and powerful business interest groups. Cheng Li, a New York-based expert on mainland politics, said in his latest report on the leadership changes that Mr Hu's populist initiatives had already begun to change the country's course of development, from obsession with economic growth to a more sustainable growth model with better pollution controls and less energy consumption; from an excessive focus on urban construction, foreign investment and foreign trade to a greater concern for rural advancement and the stimulation of domestic demand; from a single-minded emphasis on coastal development to a more balanced regional development approach. Over the past few days, the official media has begun to run a series of articles hailing Mr Hu's 'harmonious society' push as a theoretical breakthrough and the guiding light for the country in the years ahead. But Mr Hu's decision to preach the wisdom of harmony comes at a critical juncture, with the Communist Party's legitimacy in greater peril than ever. For the leadership, China is faced with similar, if not more serious, conditions than those that led to the massive pro-democracy rallies and the subsequent bloody crackdown of June 1989. Those included rampant official corruption, growing social unrest, widening income gaps, serious environmental degradation, soaring unemployment, worsening law and order, and failed reforms in housing, medical care and education. To provide theoretical backing for Mr Hu's theory, Xinhua reported at the weekend that Mr Hu had sent dozens of teams to Europe, the US, Latin America, other East Asian countries and Africa to conduct research on a wide range of social issues, from labour relations to social welfare. In a separate report on Saturday, Xinhua said Mr Hu's theory had benefited particularly from the formulas of the long-successful democratic socialist parties in Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden, particularly in the area of social welfare. This has given rise to hopes that Mr Hu intends to transform the Communist Party along the lines of the European socialist parties to maintain its legitimacy. Some party academics have already urged the party to move away from its 20-year-old dictum of highlighting economic development as the core of the party's guiding policies. Instead, the party and the government should focus on providing public administration and public services, allowing market forces to play a dominant role in economic development, they said. But when Mr Hu first put forward the theory in February last year, he faced strong resistance from within the party and was virtually forced to refrain from mentioning 'harmony' for nearly 10 months, according to sources close to the party's inner circle. The resistance came from the supporters of Mr Jiang, powerful local officials and business groups thought to have colluded with corrupt officials to profit handsomely from faster economic growth. They also put up similar resistance to central government demands since 2004 to rein in property speculation and overall economic growth to prevent overheating. Mr Chen reportedly clashed openly with Mr Wen over the central government's macroeconomic controls. It was in this context that Mr Hu launched an anti-corruption campaign this summer to consolidate his power and remove political opposition to his policy agenda. Since then, there have been arrests of high-ranking officials and well-connected businessmen in Beijing, Tianjin , Fujian , Anhui and Hunan , culminating in the downfall of Mr Chen, the most powerful official removed from office in a decade. As the investigation widens, many party officials and analysts believe Mr Hu is stepping up pressure on two members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju , to take responsibility for corruption in Beijing and Fujian, where Mr Jia used to be party chief, and in Shanghai, where Mr Huang was also party chief. However, party officials said Mr Hu was very unlikely to force Mr Jia and Mr Huang to step aside at this week's meeting. 'The pressure is aimed at ensuring the two step down quietly at the 17th congress next year, leaving them with little in the way of bargaining chips to influence the new line-up of officials,' one party source said. The sacking of Mr Chen has intensified speculation about the reshuffling of the Politburo and its nine-member standing committee at the 17th congress, even though it is still about one year away. Changes in the two powerful bodies and the larger central committee may be less sweeping than those at the 16th party congress in 2002, when there was a generational power transition, but there may still be major reshuffles. Many party officials now believe Mr Jia and Mr Huang are most likely to step down. And two more standing committee members are also likely to retire because of age. While there is no official retirement age for Politburo and standing committee members, the agreed norm appears to be 70. Luo Gan will be 72 next year and Wu Guanzheng , chairman of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, will turn 69. Of the five other standing committee members, there is little doubt that President Hu and Mr Wen will keep their posts after the 17th congress. So will Li Changchun , China's propaganda tsar and the youngest standing committee member, who turns 63 next year. Wu Bangguo , chairman of the National People's Congress, and Vice-President Zeng are also likely to remain, although Mr Zeng will be 68 by the time of the congress. At the Politburo level, Vice-Premiers Wu Yi and Zeng Peiyan will be 69 and are also expected to step down. At the central committee level, where the mandatory retirement age is 65 for provincial party secretaries, governors and ministers, there is expected to be a major intake of younger 'fifth-generation leaders' in their 50s, with several of the most prominent ones likely to be inducted into the Politburo. Following Mr Hu's anti-corruption campaign to remove political opposition, the general view is that he will now have a much freer hand in promoting his supporters and proteges from the Communist Youth League to important positions in the national and regional leadership, which would help in carrying out his populist policies. However, Mr Hu will have to be prepared for intensive horse-trading with other kingmakers - Mr Zeng in particular - in the months to come. The overseas media has long associated Mr Zeng with the Shanghai faction and Mr Jiang. But the reality is that Mr Zeng has already become a formidable force in his own right, independent of the Shanghai faction, not least because as a princeling he has maintained close ties to the children of other communist veterans - many of whom are generals in the People's Liberation Army. Mr Zeng reportedly played a pivotal role in helping Mr Hu to force Mr Jiang to relinquish his last post as the chairman of the Central Military Commission. Some overseas media have even singled him out as the key figure involved in engineering the downfall of the Shanghai party boss. But many party officials are sceptical. The anti-corruption probe that brought down Mr Chen was handled by investigators from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and commission chairman Mr Wu, a strong ally of Mr Hu, was unlikely to have answered to Mr Zeng. They believe a more likely scenario was that Mr Wu led the investigation with Mr Hu's full support. Although party officials said Mr Hu and other top leaders had not agreed on choices for vacant seats on the Politburo and its standing committee, the smart money is already on certain officials. Current Politburo members Liu Yunshan , the head of the party's propaganda department, Hubei party secretary Yu Zhengsheng , He Guoqiang , the head of the party's organisation department, and Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang are strong contenders for the vacant seats on the standing committee. Guangdong party secretary Zhang Dejiang and Beijing party secretary Liu Qi also deserve mention. Prominent fifth-generation leaders with a good chance of getting into the Politburo are likely to include Liaoning party secretary Li Keqiang and Jiangsu party secretary Li Yuanchao - both of whom are close allies of Mr Hu - Commerce Minister Bo Xilai , Zhejiang party secretary Xi Jinping , Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan , the minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ma Kai , and People's Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan . Finally, it is widely expected that Mr Hu will anoint his own successor, who will take over at the 18th congress in 2012, by promoting a fifth-generation leader to the Politburo standing committee at the 17th congress. If so, Li Keqiang is the man to watch.