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Beneath the hype: What, actually, will China's party Congress do?

Amid all the hype surrounding Thursday’s opening of the ruling Communist Party’s 18th Congress, the headlines declaring it “crucial” to China’s future and the crush of more than 1,000 foreign reporters accredited to cover the confab, it is sometimes hard to remember that the weeklong meeting is not actually going to decide anything.

The only question of interest to anyone outside theGreat Hall of the People is who will emerge from the Congress at the top of the Communist Party. And that will have been decided in much smaller conclaves before the delegates take their seats.

The Congress “is a show for mass consumption,” says Zheng Yongnian, head of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore. “But it matters because it is very symbolic, and the new leaders who have been selected have to go through the formal procedures.”

The 2,270 delegates will in fact elect only the 300 or so members and alternate members of the party’s Central Committee. It is they, meeting next week once the Congress is over, who will elect the two-dozen members of the decisionmaking Politburo, who in turn will name a handful of men — either seven or nine, rumors vary — to the Politburo Standing Committee at the summit of the pyramid.

“But 95 percent of the election results have been fixed before the Congress,” says Li Datong, a former editor of “Freezing Point,” a Communist Party youth magazine. “The Congress has meaning only as propaganda, showing off the achievements of the past 10 years” since outgoing party General Secretary Hu Jintao took the top job.

'Sailing the broad sea'

The slogans are indeed self-congratulatory. “Welcome the successful 18th Party Congress Marking Great Achievements” reads an electronic signboard splashing party propaganda acrossTiananmen Square.

“Sailing the broad sea under a boundless sky” proclaimed a headline in Tuesday’s People’s Daily, the official party organ, above a dense page-long account of accomplishments such as the launching of space rockets, the planting of trees, record grain harvests, and the construction of high-speed railways.

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