My visit to the outsized Tiananmen Square in Beijing was a reminder that, amid all the amazing capitalistic growth in China, the country still is ruled after 58 years by the elite leadership of the 73 million member Communist Party of China (CPC). The massive Square and its buildings are a symbol of state power, Communist style.

The immense portrait of CPC Founder and Revolutionary, Mao Zedong, that I first saw in 1985, still hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the north end. This time, in October 2007, the 17th National Congress of the CPC was meeting in the vast aloofness of the Great Hall of the People to the south. Military and police were thick to assure security among the huge crowds of sightseers. But, amazingly, we weren't stopped from taking all the pictures we wanted.

Probably this was because there weren't any demonstrators or trouble-makers to see. According to the Western press, scores of arrests were made before the Congress opened Oct. 15 so there would be no "embarrassing" situations for the Party. There also had been a government campaign to crack down on what it termed "false media reporting" ahead of the Congress. Bloggers have sprung up in China, but reportedly are kept in check.

The proceedings of the CPC Congress, meeting every five years, always have been undertaken in great secrecy. In the not-too-distant past, the Congress was announced only when it was over. Even now, its dates are provided just a month in advance.

The Congress' atmosphere, as reflected in the official press, seemed stolid, lacking in hoopla, even dull. An enforced sameness in the public face of party leaders added to that impression. At the end of the conference, the nine members of the CPC's Standing Committee, the country's top leadership, came out for a very brief appearance in protocol order, all wearing navy blue suits and red ties.

But politics are never dull. It's just harder in China to fathom what is going on. It seems the days of an autocratic leader deciding all the policy issues and leadership appointments ended after the first- and second-generation CPC leaders, Mao Zedung and Deng Xiaoping. The two leaders since then, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, owe their position to the late Deng. At this point, while both still are powerful, neither Jiang nor Hu seem able to dictate the choice of the leader who will succeed Hu. Consensus decisions have to be hammered out among party factions.

A key question at this Congress, then, was who would be appointed to three open positions on the Standing Committee of the CPC and whether one of them would be President and Party Chief Hu's choice as his successor. The maneuvering appeared to last right up to the last day of the Congress. The appearance in protocol order of the Standing Committee was the clue President Hu did not prevail in this choice. (I will write next about Hu and his presumed successor).

What I found remarkable is that, while leadership choices in the CPC are not made by vote, generational changes are occurring on schedule. There is an unwritten rule that leaders do not start a new term in office after they reach age 68. Thus the powerful Vice President, Zeng Qinghong, just stepped down from the Standing Committee. And Hu and other fourth-generation leaders will retire in 2012.

This generational change is considered of significance by analysts in Hong Kong, where there still is considerable press freedom. While most fourth-generation leaders in power today are engineers, fifth-generation people are trained economists, lawyers, philosophers and historians. They tend to be fluent in English. They entered politics after Deng launched market-oriented reforms and may prove less ideological. They may have a better understanding of the world and be more open to new ideas. Thus these analysts suggest the fifth generation of leaders could start mainland China on its first steps toward democracy. Let's hope so.


Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton and has retired to the family ranch. She was a career diplomat serving in Asia and Africa from 1961 to 1996.

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