The ruling Chinese Communist Party met behind closed doors on Tuesday to select a new generation of leaders who will take the country forward in the next decade, amid growing debate over the need to disclose the personal wealth of its political elite, analysts said.
Political commentator Tan Zhiqiang said he believed that a recent New York Times article alleging that the relatives of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao own U.S. $2.7 billion in hidden assets could be driving debate.
"Most of this is aimed at Wen Jiabao," he said.
"Wen Jiabao wants to leave behind a legacy, what he stood for," Tan said. "Some people aren't happy about this and the Shanghai faction under [former president] Jiang Zemin wish he would keep quiet, because he will be the first to be hurt by any 'sunshine laws' [that reveal politicians' assets]."
He said plans to set up a reporting system for the assets of politicians were a nod to public opinion following dire warnings from outgoing president Hu Jintao last week that the Party and the country could be "brought down" by public anger over rampant official corruption.
But some reports suggest such a system would only make politicians' wealth known to the upper echelons of leadership, not to the general public.
Out of touch
Joseph Cheng, political science lecturer at Hong Kong's City University, said the debate over disclosure had dragged on in China for more than a decade now.
"A more important issue is whether or not they will allow enough freedom to mainstream media in China so that they can really start fighting corruption," Cheng said.
He said that China's political elite was largely out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Chinese.
As the leaders debate behind closed doors who will lead them for the next 10 years, ordinary Chinese are faced with skyrocketing food and property prices, a slowing economy and growing social tension over pollution and official corruption linked to lucrative land deals.
"[The lack of transparency] also reveals just how little the state and Party really know about the daily lives of ordinary people," Cheng said. "That's why no one really cares what they are talking about at the 18th Party Congress."
"They all think there's nothing new in it, and that they have no way to influence the outcome, so it leaves them cold."
'Going through the motions'
A commentary in Hong Kong's Economic Journal on Tuesday agreed, saying that the hype around the Congress generated by China's state-run media had done little to interest ordinary people.
"They don't really care what goes on in the congress hall, and they think that the 18th Party Congress long ago lost its links with the masses," the article said.
"The over-emphasis on security and the traffic controls imposed [on Beijing] has also made people unhappy, and a lot of people are complaining," it said.
"Some people are saying that they go through the motions, raise their hands, and that's it. They can't wait for it to be over, so as to ease the strain on Beijing."
Nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the all-powerful decision-making body which is widely expected to be headed by Xi Jinping as China's new president and vice-premier Li Keqiang as premier in charge of the economy, are due to step down at the congress, where 2,270 delegates are meeting to vote on their replacements, although delegates rarely vote against leadership guidelines.
The new leadership is expected to be announced on Thursday.
A political source in Beijing who declined to be named said the past two days had been spent in internal "campaigning" and the handing out of approved lists of candidates for the top jobs.
"Overall, the new leadership will be centrist and conservative," the source said, meaning it would not include left-leaning candidates close to fallen political star Bo Xilai, who was ousted from the party amid political scandal, or of liberal reformers like Guangdong provincial chief Wang Yang.
"Wang Yang [is out] basically because of the Bo Xilai problem," the source said. "The left is doing all it can to pull him down as a tit-for-tat measure [after being excluded itself]."
He said that while Xi Jinping and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang were politically moderate, they would likely be joined on the standing committee by Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Zhang Gaoyu, and [propaganda czar] Liu Yunshan.
"These are all pretty awful people, who haven't really achieved much politically, or at a local level," the source said. "People were feeling quite optimistic, but the more we know the less optimistic we get."
But he said outgoing president Hu's ally Li Yuanchao also looked unlikely to get into the final line-up. "I've never thought they'd manage to keep Li Yuanchao out of the Politburo as well," he said.
Willy Wo-lap Lam, former China editor of the South China Morning Post and author of five books on China, said that recent reports that Hu would retain his post as head of the armed forces made little difference to the dent put in the outgoing president's support base at this congress.
"If Hu retains the chair of the Central Military Commission, this will be his consolation prize," Lam said in an e-mailed comment.
"Hu has lost out hugely in the Politburo Standing Committee sweepstakes, because only one person from his Communist Youth League faction is there, Li Keqiang."
"So it is a balancing act, if Hu gets to keep the military for two or three more years," Lam said.
Analysts say that Xi, who takes over at a time of divisive power struggles sparked by the fall of former political star Bo Xilai, will be the weakest president in contemporary Chinese history.
The Party last month expelled Bo from its ranks following accusations of corruption and sexual misconduct, removing his parliamentary privilege and paving the way for a criminal trial.
Bo was also judged to bear "major responsibility" in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which his wife Gu Kailai was handed a suspended death sentence on Aug. 20.
His former police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun was jailed for 15 years in September for "bending the law for selfish ends," "abuse of power," and "defection," after his Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu brought the scandal to public attention.
Reported by Fang Yuan and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translation and additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.