BEIJING – President Hu Jintao will be watched closely by China's political elite for signs that he plans to further consolidate his power at an annual policy-making meeting following the ouster of a prominent Communist Party leader for corruption, analysts said.
Although the party has said its four-day Central Committee meeting starting Sunday will officially focus on helping the poor, it is often a time for high-level personnel changes.
This year's meeting was heralded by a political earthquake: the ousting of Shanghai party Secretary Chen Liangyu for corruption two weeks ago in what was widely seen as a move by Hu to eliminate potential rivals and rein in strong-willed regional leaders.
"Everyone is going to be busy looking at the leadership changes," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China specialist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Part political theater, part bargaining session, the closed-door Central Committee meetings are a key forum for the leadership to rally senior party officials.
The coming meeting has added importance because it lays the groundwork for a more crucial gathering a year from now — a congress held every five years that is expected to re-anoint Hu as party secretary and mark his full emergence as China's unrivaled leader.
Though Chen was fired after being implicated in the misuse of government pension funds to finance real estate deals, he had been in political danger long before.
For the past two years, he and other regional leaders had been accused of defying Beijing's efforts to slow dangerously fast economic growth, and to shift development to China's countryside and impoverished west.
Chen reportedly angered Beijing by clashing with Hu's premier, Wen Jiabao, over orders to throttle back a construction frenzy in Shanghai, the country's ambitious business capital.
Chen had also been an appointee of Hu's predecessor, former President Jiang Zemin, and Hu has been steadily eroding Jiang's influence since succeeding him as party leader in 2002. He is expected to force more Jiang allies to step aside and promote his own supporters to senior positions before next year's party congress.
"The sacking of Chen Liangyu shows that Hu Jintao is now in very good control of the situation and that the Jiang Zemin era has ended," said Joseph Cheng, chairman of the City University of Hong Kong's Contemporary China Research Center.
"Hu Jintao will be in a very strong position to shape the leadership lineup at all levels," he added.
But Cheng said he does not expect Hu to force too many high-level changes at the coming Central Committee meeting for fear of triggering divisive factionalism.
Instead, he said, the famously methodical Hu has promoted about three dozen senior commanders in the paramilitary People's Armed Police in recent months across China, increasing his influence over local law enforcement.
The Communist Party said the meeting will focus on "building a harmonious society" — its term for efforts to spread prosperity throughout the country and ease tensions over the growing gap between the new middle class and the poor majority.
Hu has engineered a shift in policy since coming to power, making a priority of helping the millions of poor people who have missed out on China's economic boom. Over the past two years, Beijing has raised spending on health care, schools and other services in the countryside, home to about 800 million people.
Though Chinese leaders have offered few details on their vague promise of building a harmonious society, Cabsetan said it means the richer provinces are going to help the poorer ones "in a more systematic way."
"It means the rich are going to be taxed more," he said.