For the Party leadership, the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which opens on 8 November, should have been a triumphant occasion designed to demonstrate to the people of China and to the world the Party's absolute control of the political processes in China.
There would be a smooth and virtually seamless handover of power to a next generation of leaders who will take charge of the Party’s and the country’s destiny for the next ten years, with the blessing and understanding of the outgoing leaders. At the same time, the Congress was meant to be a celebration of the undoubted successes of the past ten years, during which China has leaped to become the world's second largest economy become a much more central figure in the international order. For the outgoing leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in particular, it is also an opportunity to establish their historic legacy through the policy line that will be established at the Congress.
Instead Chinese politics has reverted to an older type, with struggles for power and influence going on until the very last minute. According to some reports of the likely new leadership line up, Hu Jintao's political legacy may be under threat. Vast scandals have rocked the political establishment with the fall of Bo Xilai, and the bizarre and shocking tales of murder, intrigue and corruption that surrounded it.
The Congress itself is being held against a challenging backdrop. The economy appears to be faltering for the first time in many years; environmental demonstrations in Ningbo on the eve of the Congress have highlighted some of the downsides of the rush to growth and the Party's continuing problems with social unrest; and internationally, there is a difficult row with the Japanese and China's new more self-confident and assertive foreign policy stance is worrying its neighbours. Revelations of the vast fortunes accumulated by some leaders’ families have further undermined the prestige and legitimacy of the leadership.
This will not of course prevent the Congress from accentuating the positive. General Secretary Hu Jintao's keynote report to the Congress will review the Party's achievements over the last five years and attempt to set out the major policy lines for the incoming administration. The Party Constitution will be revised to include Hu Jintao's contribution to state ideology with his concepts of a harmonious society and a harmonious world.
But the main focus of world attention will be on the new leadership. Despite the political shenanigans of the past six months, the central figures remain the same, focused on Xi Jinping as General Secretary and eventually President, and Li Keqiang, slightly less certainly as Premier (their government appointments will not be formally confirmed until the meeting of China's legislature next March). But there is still much uncertainty about who will be their colleagues in the inner circle of the leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee, and what this will mean for the factional balance of power within the leadership and ultimately the capacity of the new leaders to carry out their programmes.
The country's new leaders will be the outward face of China and will bear huge expectations both within and outside China. Xi is sometimes seen as a man who is prepared to take the risks that many argue China needs to take in order to open the country up to further reform. The last ten years have seen remarkable overall economic growth, but inequality has increased dramatically, corruption has become ever more entrenched and widespread, vested interests such as the State Owned Enterprises have strengthened their grip on the economy, and reform has stalled in many areas.
The immediate tasks of the new leadership will be domestic: to assert their own authority, and ensure that the economy continues to develop at an acceptable rate. But these are for the short term, and in the longer term crucial decisions will have to be made over economic and ultimately political reform. The past ten years may yet come to be seen as a wasted opportunity where China failed to capitalize on its economic success and move more decisively down to the path to reform. If China remains stuck in the cautious consensuality of the present leadership, it will find tackling its future problems ever harder.
A Greater Role on the World Stage
Internationally, the new leadership will be expected to signal its agenda quickly. Gone are the days when China's leadership had little direct international impact, now the decisions and attitudes of China's leaders matter.
Xi has gone through a conscious grooming process, with numerous foreign visits, especially his visit to the US earlier in the year designed to promote his image as a capable leader ready to engage with the outside world. The outside world in its turn will be watching closely how China takes forward its relationship with the new US President, whether its engagement with the international community is constructive, and how it handles its relations with its near neighbours. China's influence and capabilities are going to continue to grow in the next five years, and how China manages these new capabilities and responsibilities is of concern to all.