China Communists meet in secrecy, promise democracy

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Beijing, Oct 18: China's ruling Communist Party began closed-door discussions today to settle on a new lineup for its ruling council, even as a rising political star promised more openness and accountability.

The Party's five-yearly Congress has begun considering a preliminary list of candidates for the Central Committee -- a body of about 200 full members who meet once or twice a year to discuss and endorse major decisions, Xinhua news agency reported.

Later in the week, the more than 2,200 carefully vetted Congress delegates will vote, with firm guidance from senior leaders, on a new Central Committee likely to include an influx of younger, rising officials.

The Committee will then stage similar controlled votes for a new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee -- the much smaller inner-circles of power in the top-down state.

Underscoring the sheer secrecy of Beijing politics, state media did not disclose the names of preliminary candidates.

But one leader likely to rise into the central leadership at the end of the week-long meeting said the Party wanted to be more open and accountable as citizens grew richer and more demanding.

''Political system reform is an important constitutive part of China's overall reforms,'' Li Yuanchao, Party secretary of prosperous Jiangsu province in the nation's east, told a small gathering of reporters.

Li, a political ally of President Hu Jintao, is expected to catapult into the Politburo, and could be a dark horse to join the top echelon of power, the Standing Committee, which will be unveiled next Monday.

In keeping with the cautious tone of Hu's ''state of the nation'' report to the Congress, Li stressed that any political relaxation would be carefully calibrated to avoid challenges to Party control.

''It's bound up with the level of economic and cultural development,'' he said of political reform. He said Chinese people were not particularly interested in directly electing their own leaders -- a claim the Party has never tested.

''Of course, our advancement has to be orderly. You can't, for example, turn democracy into a big meeting hall where everyone is fighting and everything is left undecided.'' Nonethless, some believe that even the controlled vote at the Congress could produce upsets if delegates -- eager to test leaders' promises of more ''democracy'' -- move against unpopular officials tainted by corruption claims.

In particular Jia Qinglin, ranked fourth in the Party hierarchy, may not survive the vote, although he appeared on a proposed list for a new Standing Committee, sources have earlier told Reuters.

''There may still be surprises in this vote,'' said Li Datong, a former editor with a Party newspaper who was shunted aside for criticising censorship.

''If someone is especially unpopular, they (the leaders) will work on the delegates first but if they are still against the choice then they may tell him to pull out''.


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