China’s Communist Party delegates prepare to vote on candidates

By Christopher Bodeen, AP

BEIJING — China’s Communist Party elite approved a list of candidates for top positions Saturday, setting the stage for final negotiations whose outcome will be a key indicator of President Hu Jintao’s political strength.

With the list of an unspecified number of candidates in hand, the more than 2,200 delegates to a weeklong party congress will on Sunday select the Central Committee, a body that appoints top leaders and sets broad policy goals.

Recent months have brought fractious backroom bargaining among senior party members, although Hu has issued a customary call for unity at the congress, held once every five years. The result of the tussle will determine how strong or divided the leadership is as it tries to ease tensions over a wide rich-poor gap at home and manage China’s rising clout abroad so as not to anger the U.S. and other world powers.

The congress is all but certain to give Hu a second five-year term as party chief. But for him, the event offers a chance to pack leading party bodies with his allies, including a potential successor, thereby giving himself a freer hand to shape policies. At Sunday’s Central Committee selection, a test for Hu will be whether Vice President Zeng Qinghong is on the list. A skilled party operator, Zeng rose to power as an aide to Hu’s predecessor, helping him shove aside rivals. Though Zeng has also helped Hu do the same, his presence is seen as a constraint on Hu’s power and at age 68, Zeng is around the party’s soft retirement age for most leaders.

Aside from selecting the Central Committee, the congress will appoint the members of the party’s internal corruption watchdog agency and adopt a revision to the party’s charter endorsing a reference to Hu’s pet policy initiative — “the scientific outlook on development.”

The program, a hallmark of Hu’s first five years, has called for increased social spending to help farmers and urban workers whose living standards have not risen as fast as many other Chinese under capitalist economic reforms.