China announced on Friday that its once-in-a-decade leadership transition will be finalized at the 18th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in early November, somewhat later that expected.
The exact dates for the secretive event are often not made public until close to the time it takes place, and preparation for this year's Congress has been overshadowed by the biggest political scandal to hit the Party in decades.
Now, official media has announced that the Congress will convene in Beijing on Nov. 8, on the same day that the Party expelled its former rising political star Bo Xilai, saying he was guilty of corruption and bore "major responsibility" in the murder of a British businessman.
The ouster of Bo, 63, is the most serious upheaval in the highest echelons of China's leadership since Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was purged in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The date is a few weeks later than usual for a Party Congress, reflecting the huge behind-the-scenes impact of the Bo scandal on the Party's transition arrangements, which will see president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao step down to make way for the next generation of leaders, analysts said.
"This shows the huge impact of the Bo Xilai scandal on the preparation work [for the transition]," Hong Kong-based political commentator Ching Cheong said on Friday.
"It has meant that they have been unable to hold the [Congress] at the usual time."
He said the date for the meeting was now unlikely to be altered, despite its having been put forward as a "suggestion" by the Central Committee.
The timing of the Congress will enable the outgoing Party leadership headed by Hu to finish criminal proceedings against Bo and sentence him before Hu hands over the reins of power formally in March next year.
"The case of Bo Xilai is no longer an individual case; it's about the struggle between the Jiang and the Hu factions within the Party," Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser for Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in a recent online interview.
"Whether Bo is dealt with leniently or harshly will depend on the handover of power that will happen after the 18th Party Congress," Gao said.
According to official media, the Congress will "thoroughly examine the current international and domestic situation and take into account of the new requirements for the country’s development and new expectations from the people."
More than 2,000 delegates from the 82-million-strong Party will converge on Beijing to rubber stamp the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Hu is widely expected to be replaced by vice president Xi Jinping, while Wen's slot will likely be filled by vice premier Li Keqiang.
Reports have indicated that the nine-member Politburo standing committee, which is the country's highest policy-making body, will be reduced back to seven members, and that the powerful politics and legal affairs committee headed by Zhou Yongkang will be downgraded after Zhou steps down.
Analysts say the Party is concerned that the huge influence wielded by these committees at every level of government in China risked setting up a separate power base, with the potential to destabilize the balance of power between various factions.
Shortly after Bo's ouster in March, China's tightly controlled Internet was awash with rumors of a political coup attempt by Bo, Zhou, and their supporters.
The reports were dismissed by Beijing as rumor-mongering at the time.
However, Party veterans penned an open letter to Hu Jintao in May, calling on the president to remove Zhou from office, citing fears that he and Bo could steer China back to the political violence of the Mao era.
Outspoken political activist Ai Weiwei warned on Thursday that people should expect no meaningful change as a result of the Congress, however.
The past 17 congresses have had almost no influence on aspects of China's society such as judicial reform, Ai told Taiwan media during an online news conference.
Ai, who says his U.S.$2.4 million tax fine from the authorities is a direct retaliation for his social activism, slammed China's political system as outmoded and corrupt, even after three decades of economic reform.
"I don't think there will be anything new on offer from the 18th Congress," he said in a Skype call to mark the Taiwan premiere of a documentary about his clashes with the Chinese government, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."
Veteran blogger and social entrepreneur Isaac Mao agreed.
"Please don't count on any real changes in the coming [Party Congress], instead, there could be huge retroversion," Mao warned via his Twitter account on Friday.
Meanwhile, the authorities have clamped down on activists and dissidents ahead of the Congress, as part of a nationwide "stability" drive that has seen pro-active surveillance and detentions of critics and activists across the country.
Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser said she had been contacted by state security police in Beijing and told to leave the capital ahead of the Congress.
"The Beijing state security police have told me that I can't stay in Beijing during the 18th Party Congress," she told RFA's Cantonese service on Friday. "I will only be allowed to return to Beijing after the Congress is over."
"This would never happen in a democracy," Woeser said. "In a dictatorship...you are not allowed to take part, and instead you are ordered around."
"Under such circumstances you begin to feel very passive, and experience all sorts of abnormal psychological effects, like anxiety and tension," she said.
Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.