BEIJING — China has impressed the world with its strong economy, growing global power and hardworking people. This week showcases another side of China that has changed little, as dynamism bows to pageantry, reform to stasis and fleet-footed talent to elitism.
On Monday, the Chinese Communist Party begins its weeklong 17th Party Congress, an event held once every five years in which the nation is expected to march forward in lock step with one political voice.
Don't expect a public debate over China's huge rich-poor gap, growing social tension, environmental crisis or relations with Taiwan. Think coronation, not controversy.
Although important issues are covered in the long, lifeless speeches, they are handed down from on high, in keeping with a leadership keen to project an image of omniscient paternalism. Differences of opinion are best kept out of sight.
Control and secrecy are paramount. Nearly a year before the congress, the propaganda ministry distributed its list of forbidden media topics for 2007, which included judicial corruption, lifestyles of the wealthy and extramarital affairs.
Several months ago, state media stopped reporting all "bad news." Until a few weeks ago, even the schedule was a state secret. The 2,217 delegates are now sequestered in a few hotels, beyond the reach of family, friends or reporters.
Internet controls have been tightened, about 18,000 websites shut down, television bra ads banned, unscripted TV programs and foreign dramas yanked. Most on the government's list of "troublemakers," including chronic petitioners, civic group members and social activists, have received police warnings, been placed under house arrest or detained.
"I was told not to go to Beijing during the 17th Party Congress," said Ai Xiaoming, professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, who has produced documentaries on village elections and AIDS. "How can a powerful party be so scared of an individual? What a funny idea that a professor can't go to Beijing."
In most nations, a leader's second term evokes lame-duck imagery. In China, President Hu Jintao, 64, is just getting started. He has spent most of the last five years consolidating his power and is now poised in his second term to make his mark.
This includes enshrining his philosophy and core slogans in party documents. Thus Hu's calls for a "harmonious society" and "scientific development" -- programs focused on helping the underprivileged -- are slated to join the ranks of Mao Tse-tung's thought, Deng Xiaoping's theories and Jiang Zemin's doctrine of the "Three Represents."
That said, few expect bold pronouncements from Hu, a cautious, largely colorless leader with a near-photographic memory and the political skills to rise through treacherous party ranks.
For tea-leaf watchers, the main show will be personnel changes. The congress selects a new 190-member Central Committee, which in turn appoints the crucial 25-member Politburo, average age 66, and the elite nine-member Standing Committee, average age 65. By tradition, Hu's successor must be named to the Standing Committee in preparation for taking the reins in 2012.
However, the days when a Mao or Deng could decree their successor appear to be over. Rumors suggest Hu's preferred candidate -- Li Keqiang, 52, party secretary of Liaoning province -- may not be a shoo-in given inadequate support and a perceived lack of experience. Some see the recently named Shanghai party secretary, Xi Jinping, 54, as a stronger contender. The two embody different factions. Li is associated with Hu's Communist Youth League base, whereas Xi represents the "princelings," or sons and daughters of top officials.
Though some see in this drama evidence that the system is grinding toward a more consensus-oriented way of making decisions, others wonder whether Hu has, in fact, fully consolidated his power.
At the congress, Hu is expected to tout the results of his recent high-profile anti-corruption campaign, the latest of dozens initiated over the years, and the role of a new anti-corruption bureau.
Without meaningful checks and balances on party power, however, few foreign analysts expect major inroads against corruption, reinforcing a perception among many Chinese that these campaigns soon peter out or are selectively applied to remove political enemies.
In response to calls for greater accountability, the party has experimented with "democracy with Chinese characteristics." This has nothing to do with broad-based public elections but is rather a cautious step that allows party elites to vote in a few contests in which the number of candidates exceeds the available positions. This week, for instance, the delegates, who are nominated and elected by local and regional party representatives, may vote on 15% more candidates than there are Central Committee posts.