BEIJING, Oct 14 (Reuters) Chinese President Hu Jintao is set to emerge from the Communist Party Congress commanding a new leadership core that reflects both his dominance and his careful calculus for preserving power and unity.
The stolid ritual of the Congress, which opens tomorrow with Hu's recital of achievements sure to draw dutiful applause from the 2,200 delegates, is a show of unity by the Party that governs over 1.3 billion people and the world's fourth biggest economy.
But the five-yearly meeting is also when Hu must take the potentially divisive step of shedding colleagues installed under his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, and promoting younger leaders likely to form the Party's ''fifth generation''.
The meeting is set to promote two provincial leaders in their early 50s - Xi Jinping of Shanghai and Li Keqiang of the northeastern province Liaoning - to a nine-seat Politiburo Standing Committee, putting them in the wings as likely successors to Hu and government chief Premier Wen Jiabao five years hence, sources told Reuters.
The usually submissive Congress will vote in a new Central Committee, a council with hundreds of members that at the end of the Congress will endorse a new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost circle of power.
Hu has dominated the recruitment process but, reflecting a desire to avoid rifts, he has also been willing to promote officials without strong ties to himself yet acceptable to other elite constituencies, officials and analysts said.
''Hu is prudent enough to make the process one of collective appointment, not personal anointment,'' said You Ji of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
''He wants loyalty for sure -- anyone does -- but I think he's clever enough to see the peril of promoting too many people into the top leadership who are only his people.'' The Standing Committee lineup revealed after the Congress ends in about a week is thus likely to mimic the style Hu has set in the past five years: low-key, wary of ideological drama and preferring collective decision-making.
''I view this leadership as a tyranny of the middle,'' said Frederick Teiwes of the University of Sydney.
DISUNITY IS DEATH Hu and other members of the Party's elite carry a heavy burden of historical lessons. They are custodians of a Communist state that has survived even while it embraced capitalism and even as most others collapsed.
They experienced early adulthood during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the revolutionary founder threw the country into radical chaos stoked by his paranoia of leadership disloyalty.
They later watched as rifts between Party elders and reformist leaders fuelled contention climaxing in the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Those experiences have fostered a powerful ethos of conformity, stability and unity around a leader, said Teiwes.
Reformist patriarch Deng Xiaoping favoured Hu to succeed Jiang precisely because of his ability to skirt friction, analysts said.
''Hu Jintao has avoided playing strongly factional politics because he knows that would backfire on him,'' said Bo Zhiyue of St John Fisher College in New York.
''I think he knows that real power lies in his position ... He also knows how to balance different groups.'' But for Hu, recruiting a new generation of leaders to serve under him has also required navigating the shadow of Jiang, a man proud of his legacy who left a central lineup heavy with men promoted under him.
Over the past five years, however, one leader close to Jiang has died and another has been toppled for corruption.
Vice President Zeng Qinghong -- a powerful figure in his own right but also long close to Jiang -- is also likely to leave the political stage after the Congress.
A CARD, NOT A PLAYER In the secretive world of Chinese politics, how these decisions were made remains opaque. Some observers have said that Jiang still held sway over crucial choices.
But an official involved in Congress preparations said Jiang has not played an active role in the decisions.
''I'm not sure who'll be on the Standing Committee, but I'm certain it's up to Hu Jintao,'' said another official at a major Party think-tank. Both sources requested anonymity.
''He wants loyalty, but he doesn't demand clones of himself''.
Of the two top contenders for Hu's job, Li from Liaoning shares Hu's roots in the Communist Youth League and has worked in both rural central China and more recently the industrial northeast.
Xi's experience in the prosperous eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang has made him acceptable to officials eager to champion Jiang's legacy of growth.
Both Xi and Li were originally slated to join the Politburo at the previous Congress in 2002, but Jiang's desire to retain his own men frustrated their rise -- hardly likely to forge enduring gratitude to the retired leader, said Bo.
''Jiang Zemin is not a player in the process. At most, he's a card being played by other players,'' said Bo.
REUTERS ARB RK1236