BEIJING – As top Chinese communist leaders mulled appointments and other business behind closed doors Tuesday, media at the leaders' congress focused on the party's two newest celebrities and potential future leaders.
The weeklong congress — held every five years — will reappoint party chief Hu Jintao and others at the top of the hierarchy, while replacing senior veterans with younger leaders slated to inherit top slots five years from now.
With no word on the closed discussions, scores of reporters squeezed instead into meeting rooms at the Great Hall of the People where Liaoning province party chief Li Keqiang and his Shanghai colleague Xi Jinping met with their regional delegations.
The two men are widely viewed as leading contenders for promotion to the party's all powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and possible successors to Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao when they begin giving up their posts five years from now.
In a congress tradition, Li, 52, and Xi, 54, joined delegates to discuss and praise Hu's congress address delivered at Monday's opening session. Taking questions at the session's end, they pointedly avoided discussion of personnel issues while heartily endorsing Hu's policies.
Asked what his greatest accomplishments in office had been, Li responded: "Liaoning's achievements, I think, have come through the party center's leadership and the hard work of all our province's people toiling together."
Xi, whose predecessor was toppled in a corruption scandal, was even more cautious.
"We are taking additional steps to explore and expand on the theory of scientific development and bring it to its full fruition," Li said, referencing Hu's signature ideology of balanced development and increased spending on social services.
Discussion of promotions or personnel issues is fraught with danger in China's authoritarian system where advancement is based on avoiding mistakes and cultivating older leaders. Under past leaders, would-be successors have fallen from favor after drawing too much attention or pushing reforms too hard.
On Monday, another provincial leader touted for higher office dodged a similar question about his chances of joining the Politburo Standing Committee, whose size varies but which was expanded to nine seats at the last congress in 2002.
"That is baseless," Jiangsu party chief Li Yuanchao told reporters. "Like a colleague of mine said, that's rumor. And since it's rumor, I won't respond to it."
While neither Li Keqiang or Xi Jinping is assured of a committee seat, their relative youth and good relations with senior leaders have made them front runners. The committee's makeup won't be known until the congress' final day, when they stride out from behind a curtain in carefully designated order of rank.
While Xi and Li received the rock star treatment from foreign media, official Chinese newspapers all carried virtually the same front page photos and stories about the congress.
Splashed in patriotic red ink, the uniformly positive reports sought to project an image of unity amid the backroom political horse trading.
The sensitive transition comes as China's economy continues to surge but amid rising public anger over corruption, pollution and a yawning wealth gap between the rural poor and the better-off populations in the booming coastal cities.
Hu's speech on Monday outlined no bold initiatives, but offered something for most key constituencies — minor political tinkering for the party's liberal wing, more money for the politically influential military, and praise for Marx and Mao Zedong for more orthodox party members.
The meeting, which ends Sunday, is seen as a critical test of Hu's political skills. He is assured reappointment to a second and probably final five-year term but key measures of his influence will be how many supporters he can maneuver into key positions.
Speaking on a dais backed by an enormous hammer-and-sickle party symbol, Hu said China's rising economic and diplomatic might as proof of the correctness of party policies since he assumed power. He mentioned also the country's two manned space flights and next year's Beijing Olympics, achievements that have helped burnish the highly circumspect and frequently enigmatic leader's popularity.
"During this period, China's overall strength grew considerably and the people enjoyed more tangible benefits. China's international standing and influence rose notably," Hu told the 2,200 delegates inside the Great Hall.