China on Thursday set in motion a once-in-a-decade leadership transition amid dire warnings to the ruling Chinese Communist Party by outgoing president Hu Jintao on rampant official corruption, and a pledge to narrow a widening gap between rich and poor.
In a state-of-the-nation address to more than 2,000 hand-picked delegates to the 18th Party Congress, Hu said graft was "a major political issue of great concern to the people."
"Nobody is above the law," said Hu, speaking from a carefully edited script under the Party's golden hammer-and-sickle symbol and flanked by veteran revolutionaries in Mao jackets, including his still-powerful predecessor Jiang Zemin.
"If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the Party, and even cause the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state," said Hu, who is expected to step down at this Congress to be replaced by vice-president Xi Jinping.
Hu's warning comes as the Party struggles to manage a major political scandal, widespread social unrest and slowing economic growth.
As the Party reels in the wake of the purge of its former political star Bo Xilai, reports of the crash of a luxury car belonging to the son of a close Hu aide, and of huge wealth connected to the families of Xi Jinping and premier Wen Jiabao have also brought its highest-ranking political elite into the spotlight.
Hu called on Party officials at all levels to "exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff."
"They should never seek any privilege," he told the Congress.
But while Hu pledged to carry out reforms to "the political structure," he ruled out any adoption of parliamentary democracy.
"We will never copy a Western political system," he said.
According to Willy Wo-lap Lam, former China editor of the South China Morning Post and author of five books on China, recent references by Hu and Wen to "political reform" in effect mean little more than some bureaucratic fat-trimming.
"This means no reforms, period," Lam said. "They may reduce the number of State Council departments."
"But these won't mean a thing to ordinary people, especially the lower classes," he added.
U.S.-based veteran dissident and rights activist Wei Jingsheng also dismissed the notion of reform, as used by China's leaders.
"Wen Jiabao has talked about reforms, but they are just lies to make people feel good," he wrote in a recent commentary on RFA's Mandarin service. "He totally lacks the courage to put them into practice; maybe he never had any intention of doing so."
"How else could he have spent a happy 10 years in office amid rampant official corruption the length and breadth of China?"
Both Hu's speech and official media coverage focused instead on the economy as the key challenge facing the new generation of Chinese leaders, with Hu pledging to build a "moderately prosperous society" by 2020.
"On the basis of making China's development much more balanced, coordinated and sustainable, we should double its 2010 GDP and per capita income for both urban and rural residents," Hu said.
The official Xinhua news agency said in an analysis that China now stood at a "critical point of restructuring."
"China's leaders will have to counter a slew of challenges lurking up ahead," it said, citing the slowing of economic growth to 7.8 percent in the first half of the year, growing "public complaints and frictions" sparked by official corruption, pollution and the widening wealth gap.
However, Shandong-based commentator Li Xiangyang said the wealth gap-, which official figures say approaches 'dangerous' levels in rural China as calculated by the Gini coefficient, is likely far worse than officials admit.
"International measures of the divide between rich and poor have shown that China's wealth divide has already crossed the line," said Li, who works for the nongovernmental pro-democracy Mr. De Research Institute in Beijing.
"The rich-poor gap will continue to exist, and will continue to worsen," Li predicted. "[This is] because of the ceaseless plunder carried out by the vested interests of those in power, so that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer."
Li's colleague at the institute, Zhang Jiankang, said that a small number of Chinese families now controlled the majority of its wealth.
"Changing this network of interconnected interests is very risky for politicians," Zhang said. "The new generation of Chinese leaders are themselves a part of this network of interest groups, and they would experience a powerful backlash if they tried to touch it."
Activists in exile penned an open letter to China's leaders ahead of the Congress, calling for sweeping political change to do away with the current system of political and financial privilege.
"As the ruling party in China, the Communist Party has a monopoly on political power, and your Congress is not only the internal affair of a political elite," the letter said. "It will have an impact on the lives and fate of ordinary Chinese people."
"As Chinese citizens, we do not wish to be the passive recipients of politics," it said.
Nine members of China's highest decision-making body, the Politburo standing committee, are due to step down at the Congress, where 2,270 delegates begin meeting over five days to vote on their replacements, although delegates rarely vote against leadership guidelines.
Hu and Wen will retire, while Xi and vice-premier Li Keqiang, who is widely tipped to replace Wen, are expected to have a place on the new committee, which reports say could number only seven.
The Party last month expelled fallen Chinese political star 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 Xin Yu and Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.