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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 03:48 GMT 04:48 UK
China's future discussed in secret
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

China's Great Hall of the People
Most decisions will be made well before the congress later this year
Chinese leaders are currently in discussions that will decide the fate of the country over the next five years and beyond.

In debates taking place mostly behind closed doors, they are deciding the shape of the Chinese Communist Party's 17th National Congress.

At the congress gathering, scheduled for later this year, new policies will be unveiled and changes in the party's senior leadership revealed.

Analysts expect these changes will show that President Hu Jintao has strengthened his grip over China's ruling elite.

New line-up

The National Congress gathers together about 2,000 senior party leaders from across the country every five years.

Held in Beijing, it is the most important public event in Chinese politics.

The new line-up for the politburo, the highest decision-making body in China, will emerge at the congress and in meetings held immediately afterwards.

We haven't been told anything. Only people higher up know what's happening
Communist Party member, on the forthcoming congress meeting
"Right now is a crucial period of time. Party leaders are arguing about who's in and who's out," said Professor Zheng Yongnian, of Nottingham University in the UK.

One of the key figures to watch is Li Keqiang, the party secretary for Liaoning Province and a long-time protege of President Hu.

Leadership changes will not be quite as dramatic as they were at the last congress in 2002, when former President Jiang Zemin stepped down as the party's general secretary, paving the way for Hu Jintao to take over as president the following year.

But China's next president - Mr Hu is expected to retire in five years' time - will probably emerge from the rising stars promoted this time round.

In order to make sure his chosen men are given top jobs, Mr Hu has been busy behind the scenes, according to experts.

Hu Jintao
Mr Hu is expected to make changes to strengthen his grip on power
Last year's sacking of Shanghai's party chief and politburo member Chen Liangyu, following allegations of corruption, was as much about getting rid of a rival as cleaning up politics.

Mr Hu has also been promoting men who have come up through his power base in the Chinese Communist Youth League.

China, much more than in the West, is a nation ruled by men rather than laws, and leaders have to surround themselves with supporters in order to survive.

Key goals

On the policy front, the next five years will see Mr Hu continue along the road he started when he first took over the top job.

He has concentrated on problems of immediate interest to ordinary people, such as health, education and employment.

At a recent keynote speech given at the party's central school, he gave a sneak preview of the themes that will feature in his "political report" at this year's congress.

In front of officials from across the country, Mr Hu said "social harmony" and building a "well-off society" are key goals.

The standing committee line-up in 2002
A new generation of leaders could be chosen ahead of this meeting
Making sure everyone benefits from China's unprecedented economic growth has become the main feature of Mr Hu's presidency.

It differs from the approach of his predecessor. President Jiang was more interested in wooing the country's emerging group of affluent business people.

But whatever comes out of this year's party congress, one thing is certain - the Chinese population will have little inkling about what is going on before the big event.

They are told little of the discussions taking place - no-one has even told them exactly when the week-long congress will be held.

The party-run People's Daily could only say last week that it was "slated for [the] coming October".

Even ordinary party members - there are about 70 million of them - know little about what is going on.

"We haven't been told anything," said one, who did not want to be identified. "Only people higher up know what's happening."

Like everyone else across the world, Chinese people will just have to wait and see.

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