What China's leadership change means
01:25 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Thousands of delegates gather in Beijing for the Communist Party Congress

China's leaders for the next decade are set to be unveiled by the end of the weeklong event

They face a host of challenges at home and abroad

Their intentions remain unclear, even to many China experts

Hong Kong CNN  — 

Those who think the U.S. electoral college is a complicated system for choosing a leader should take a look at China right now.

Thousands of senior officials from around the world’s most populous nation have gathered in Beijing amid heavy security for a week of lengthy speeches and jargon-heavy meetings that began Thursday.

At the end of it all, the once-in-a decade process will unveil a new set of top leaders to the world.

There will be no frenzy of exit polls and ballot counting. The major outcomes of the ruling Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, as the event is known, have been determined in advance after months of secretive maneuvering and deal-making among senior party figures.

The method may be arcane, but the result matters for China’s 1.3 billion citizens and for countries around the globe like the United States that are trying to decipher what the Asian giant’s growing international clout means for them.

The only problem is, nobody’s sure exactly what China’s new top brass will do once they have assumed power.

During the race for the White House in the United States, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney eagerly brandished their credentials for getting tough on China, with Obama citing trade suits he’d filed and Romney promising to label Beijing a currency manipulator.

China’s prospective leaders, however, are a great deal more circumspect about their policies – both domestic and international – often speaking in broad, ambiguous terms.

“Chinese leaders don’t rise to the top telegraphing what changes they’ll do,” said Bruce J. Dickson, a political science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “They rise to the top showing how loyal they are to the incumbent. What they’ll do when they rise to the top – that’s the big question.”

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What the next decade may bring

Uncertainty breeds speculation, and the unfolding leadership change has generated a wealth of theories from observers about what the next 10 years might hold.

Some say they expect measures to reshape China’s huge economy, in which state-owned companies play a powerful role. Others predict the army may have a stronger influence amid rising tensions over territorial disputes with neighbors like Japan.

And rumors continue to circulate about the possibility of democratic reforms as leaders seek greater legitimacy in the wake of a huge political scandal this year involving the former senior party official Bo Xilai, and widespread corruption among officials throughout the country.

Addressing the start of the congress on Thursday, President Hu Jintao warned that the inability to deal with corruption could bring down the party and the state it has controlled for the past 63 years.

“If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party,” he told a vast room of delegates in the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.

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A new leader, opaque stances

Whether or not the party succeeds in that battle depends partly on Vice President Xi Jinping, who is set to pick up the post of party chief from Hu, 69, during the congress.

Xi, 59, is expected to become president early next year.

But like most of the other leaders set to surround him at the top of the party, Xi’s stance on many key issues remains opaque.

The son of one of Mao Zedong’s top lieutenants, Xi is considered a “princeling” because of his family’s place in the Communist Party aristocracy. He is also believed to be close to the Chinese military.

In a visit to the United States in February, he talked of the two nations’ “interwoven interests” and said they “should reduce misunderstanding and suspicion.”

He met with U.S. leaders, including Obama, and returned to a small city in Iowa where he had stayed 27 years previously to learn about agricultural practices.

Although his trip left many none the wiser about the direction in which he is likely to lead China, some observers see reasons for optimism.

“Vocally, he’s a nationalist. Psychologically, he greatly hopes to keep good relations with the West, especially the U.S.,” said Pin Ho, chairman of Mirror Books, which published a biography of Xi this year. Ho noted that Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingze, studies at Harvard under a pseudonym.

Internal challenges await

Besides grappling with the United States on prickly issues like trade and human rights, Xi and his likely deputy, current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, will inherit a daunting array of internal challenges.

Under Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, China’s economy has continued to grow, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty.

China is now the world’s second-biggest economy and closing fast on the United States. But there have been disappointments and discontent along the way, and Hu’s much vaunted “harmonious society” is showing signs of cracking.

Chinese leaders have endured a tumultuous year. The veil of secrecy around the party has been lifted, with reports of rifts and infighting. And the fall of Bo brought about China’s biggest political scandal in decades.

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Bo, once party chief of the massive metropolis of Chongqing, is now in disgrace awaiting trial. His wife, Gu Kailai, is in prison, convicted of murdering a British business associate.

Senior party leaders and their leaders have had to deal with unusual scrutiny of their affairs, with Western news organizations publishing investigations into the wealth accumulated by the families of Xi and Wen.

Chinese authorities responded to the reports by blocking the websites of the news organizations involved: Bloomberg News and The New York Times.

But China’s army of censors is having to grapple with the rapid rise of social media platforms on which information moves and mutates at a dizzying pace.

China is treading many fault lines: a widening gap between rich and poor, rising unrest about issues like pollution and land seizures, and a slowing economy that some say is in need of serious reform.

Hu mentioned some of those tensions Thursday along with several other contentious issues – like food safety, health care and the criminal justice system – acknowledging that “there are a lot of difficulties and problems on our road ahead.”

The Tibet issue

Another issue Hu’s government has struggled to tackle during its decade in power is the discontent and unrest among Tibetans living under Chinese rule.

Authorities were given a grim reminder on Wednesday of the disillusionment and desperation of many Tibetans in western areas of China after four people set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

One teenage Tibetan monk died and two were injured after self-immolating in a majority Tibetan region of Sichuan Province, said Penpa Tsering, a spokesman for the Tibetan parliament in exile in Dharamsala, India. And a 23-year-old Tibetan woman died a separate incident in Qinghai Province, Tsering said, citing unidentified people in Tibetan areas.

Dozens of Tibetans are reported to have set themselves ablaze in the past 18 months to express their unhappiness with Chinese rule. And the central government in Beijing is also dealing with other restive ethnic groups, like the Uyghurs in the western province of Xinjiang.

A changing of the guard

Facing up to these difficulties with Xi and Li will be a raft of other newly promoted officials in the upper echelons of the party.

More than 2,200 delegates from across China are in attendance at the congress this week. The congress itself meets every five years. It is designed to assess the country’s progress, and set new directions. Every 10 years it selects the new leadership.

The delegates will pick the roughly 200 members of the party’s Central Committee, about three-quarters of whom are expected to be replaced, mostly because of their age.

The Central Committee chooses the members of the Politburo, from which the powerful Politburo Standing Committee is selected. The handful of leaders who make up the Standing Committee are China’s top decision makers.

Feverish speculation over exactly which leaders will make it into that elite group has intensified in recent weeks.

Xi and Li appear to be sure bets. But the definitive line-up isn’t expected to be known until the end of the congress next week, when the chosen few are likely to stride out onto the stage.

They will then have to take up the forbidding task of charting a course for the huge, diverse nation.

Not only will they have to agree on what policies to pursue, according to Guy de Jonquières, a senior fellow at the European Center for International Political Economy, “they must also show that they can implement them effectively, often against strong resistance from within the party’s own ranks.”

It is still far too early to tell whether they will fare better than their predecessors, Jonquières, who is based in London, wrote in an opinion article for CNN’s Global Public Square blog.

“More time and more political (green) tea leaf-reading will be needed before clear answers start to emerge,” he said.

CNN’s Elizabeth Yuan and Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong, and Stan Grant in Beijing contributed to this report.