Democracy has become a buzzword in the past week in the capital. Communist Party cadres attending the mainland's biggest political show, which is held every five years, displayed an unprecedented interest in expounding on the usually sensitive topic, after their party chief Hu Jintao mentioned the word democracy more than 60 times in his opening address to the party's national congress. Mr Hu articulated his pet slogan 'intra-party democracy' and promised to push ahead with stalled political reform in moderate steps, including more transparency and open and competitive elections. Despite the talk of democratic reforms, the catchphrases are still too vague to be understood or to lead to any meaningful changes, mainland and overseas political analysts say. At the same time, they are divided over whether the 76-year-old party has become more institutionalised, with discussion of intra-party democracy on the one hand and months of power struggles within the top leadership on the other. Both University of Wisconsin political scientist Edward Friedman and Steve Tsang, senior research fellow in modern Chinese studies at Oxford University, say intra-party democracy is aimed at institutionalising an authoritarian regime. But Yuan Weishi , a historian at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, is more sceptical about the party's efforts at institution-building. 'I don't have any impression of major progress in this regard in recent years,' he said. 'If there were any such steps, they were incremental and non-essential.' He says that although Mr Hu has lavished words on political reforms, it 'remains to be seen how far his words can be translated into action'. Professor Yuan notes Beijing has set out a basket of policies over the past five years, mostly to rein in local authorities and to repair its image tainted by widespread public dissatisfaction over rampant corruption and other acute social and environmental woes. These moves included reducing the number of deputy positions in central and local governments and dispatching disciplinary officials to oversee local authorities in the wake of a spate of corruption scandals which saw the ousting of several senior officials, including former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu . Beijing also repeatedly called on party cadres to improve collective leadership and 'oppose and prevent arbitrary decision-making by an individual or a minority of people'. 'But the crux is whether they're about true democracy or just decorative and temporary moves,' Professor Yuan, adding that freedom of expression should be an important criterion in gauging political progress. 'There can't be real democracy without the freedom to voice dissent.' But he questioned the overseas media's intense speculation over the leadership reshuffle based on the notion of a factional power struggle within the party. 'Most of those reports are merely rumours and speculation. They don't have a reliable understanding or analysis of contemporary Chinese politics,' he said. Despite its expanding size, the 73-million-strong party had always been a disciplined and highly centralised organisation. 'It is true that there is no transparency in party politics, especially in terms of personnel reshuffles at the top level. But to say there are fierce struggles for power inside the leadership is just a guessing game,' Professor Yuan said. Liu Junning, a Beijing-based political scientist who used to work at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Political Science, supports Professor Yuan's views. 'There have been factions in the party since its early years and the situation will not be changed much by intra-party democracy or institution building,' he said. Professor Liu says he does not see much difference between Mr Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin , in terms of dealing with party factions. 'While Mr Jiang ousted his political rival Chen Xitong , [a former party boss of Beijing], Mr Hu has done virtually the same thing to Chen Liangyu.' He says that unlike Mao Zedong , who waged ideological campaigns to purge those who dared to challenge him, the current leadership used the anti-corruption drive to squeeze out political rivals. Beijing has adopted informal rules on leadership reshuffles, such as term limits and retirement ages, in a bid to ensure orderly succession. Although the party has followed the ritual of having its national gathering every five years and the elite Central Committee meeting every year, it has done little to answer mounting calls for competitive elections at the highest level of the Politburo. Professor Liu says Beijing has yet to specify things like the the nomination process for the party's general secretary and the number of members the Politburo should have, which has varied at different party congresses. 'We have seen frequent revisions of the party charter - almost every five years - and the personal ideas [of top leaders] enshrined in the party constitution. But there have been few institutional efforts to formally detail what processes should be followed,' he said. 'If the party does not make institutional efforts to address the most important issues, it does not matter much what progress it has made on those side issues.' Moreover, Professor Liu says, it is more important to examine the relationship between the ruling party and the state than paying much attention to institution-building within the party. Professor Liu and Professor Yuan also agree that the party's promised gradual political reforms have lagged far behind the expectations of the public and party members. Mainland scholars have expressed wishes that the party leaders follow their Vietnamese counterparts, who allowed a competitive race for the top party post last year. But Beijing has so far refused to give way to the appeal, which has been growing noticeably within the party over the years. With much emphasis on how to enhance the legitimacy of one-party rule and consolidate its power, Mr Hu said any democratic reform on the political system must adhere to the 'correct political orientation', meaning the party's leadership. 'Mr Hu's talks of intra-party democracy and institution building are nothing more than lip service, which will not result in real changes,' Professor Liu said.