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China prepares to begin leadership transition

Paramilitary policemen saluted while a Chinese national flag was raised at Tiananmen Square with Chinese characters that read "Long Live" beside a portrait of Mao Zedong.

Vincent Yu/Associated Press

Paramilitary policemen saluted while a Chinese national flag was raised at Tiananmen Square with Chinese characters that read "Long Live" beside a portrait of Mao Zedong.

BEIJING — China’s once-a-decade leadership transition begins Thursday with all the pageantry, security, and behind-the-scenes political intrigue befitting the secretive ruling Communist Party’s most sensitive event.

By Wednesday, the usually crowded Tiananmen Square had been cleared, giving it an eerie, postapocalyptic feel. Activists had been chased out of the capital, and buildings across the city were draped in flags, flowers, and signs, all colored Communist red.

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But beneath the pomp of China’s weeklong 18th party congress are deep implications for the US-China relationship and the world at large.

China’s new leaders will take over at a critical moment. The country’s economy, the world’s second largest, has been growing for three decades, providing much-needed fuel for the regional and global economy and helping to ensure stability at home. But it has slowed in recent months, and many believe economic reform is desperately needed.

China’s complicated and often fraught relationship with the United States has also been stalled for much of the past year, with China-bashing figuring prominently during the US presidential election.

At a news conference Wednesday, Communist Party spokesman Cai Mingzhao expressed hope that with his reelection, President Obama would ‘‘continue to build a positive China policy.’’

In recent years, the Obama administration has invested time and energy into nurturing ties with the next generation of leaders. Vice President Joe Biden in particular has tried to develop a rapport with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to replace President Hu Jintao as leader of the party and the country next week. Xi is expected to assume the official title of president in March.

But whether US investment will translate into greater clout with China on thorny issues such as Syria, Iran, Taiwan, or Tibet, or into better overall US-China relations, is unclear.

The highly scripted party congress carries serious domestic implications. Party officials are encountering growing criticism of corruption, its vested interests in state-owned enterprises, and the secrecy and democratic veneer it uses to cloak party leaders’ iron grip on the country’s levers of powers.

In recent weeks, calls for reform have grown louder, including from some within the party, prompting some analysts to believe that a measure of change may be a possibility.

But specialists caution that what party leaders see as reform could differ greatly from the outside world’s understanding of the word.

‘‘It would not be political reform the West talks about,’’ said one intellectual with connections to party officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. ‘‘It will not mean a real multiparty system or an elected leader, but rather reforms that help the party preserve credibility, strengthen the economy, and, above all, keep its hold on power.’’

How willing the new generation of leaders is to undertake such changes will depend on its makeup, which remains a mystery.

For weeks, speculative lists have circulated among party insiders — sometimes overlapping, at other times contradictory — of who may be named to the all-powerful Politburo standing committee.

Most specialists believe the decision has been made in secret by retired party elders and current leaders.

But others say that, given the fierce competition among party factions, the list may be open to attack or change up to the last minute.

To distract the public from the closed and secretive process, party leaders have stuffed the next days with an array of events, including press briefings, the unveiling of official party reports, and countless meetings and group discussions among the party congress’s 2,270 delegates.

Four news conferences are also scheduled in the coming week to address areas of mounting criticism of the party: its opaque system of internal promotions, environmental destruction, the economy, and censorship and other restrictions on culture.

But answers to the most pressing questions will be gleaned mainly by reading between the lines. Provincial officials and analysts will be poring over a report Hu is scheduled to deliver Thursday morning about the party’s recent work and accomplishments, parsing its meaning for clues of the party’s direction.

None of this, however, will be made clear until the day after the party congress ends, when the lineup is revealed.

And like most things related to the party, even as the party congress opens, the very date of that final announcement, expected by some to be Nov. 15, remains a secret.

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