BEIJING (Reuters) - When President Hu Jintao opens the 17th Chinese Communist Party congress on Oct. 15, he will be seeking to oust key rivals, name a successor and finally emerge from the shadow of his once powerful predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
A stronger grip on power could allow Hu to speed up his drive to balance breakneck but uneven economic growth, improve the lives of poor farmers, build a social safety net, halt rampant environmental degradation and promote "fair and just" policies.
The 58-year history of the People's Republic is littered with the names of heirs apparent who died in prison, in mysterious circumstances or under house arrest.
This time, when the 2,217 party delegates pack into Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the all-important question is whether Hu, who doubles as state president, can neutralise Jiang's lingering off-stage influence.
"Hu is now the biggest stakeholder and hopes to become the majority stakeholder," political commentator Liang Kezhi said.
Even in the months before the congress there have been high-level political casualties.
A top-ranking rival, the Party boss in Shanghai, Jiang's traditional power base, now faces trial for corruption. The finance minister resigned amid allegations of a sex scandal. The food and drug safety chief was tried and executed for corruption.
But Jiang's influence, while waning, has not been eclipsed.
RIVALS OUT, HEIRS IN?
One key test of Hu's growing confidence will be whether he can ease out Jiang allies Zeng Qinghong and Jia Qinglin from the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, now down to eight members after the death of another Jiang loyalist, Vice Premier Huang Ju, in June.
"Zeng Qinghong has too much power. He controls the Party's assets and cadres nationwide," one source with ties to the leadership said of China's sitting vice president.
Another barometer of Hu's clout is whether he can name a protege as his successor -- a fifth-generation leader after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang and Hu himself.
Li Keqiang, Party boss of the northeastern rustbelt province of Liaoning, is front-runner and tipped to join the Standing Committee, sources with ties to the leadership said.
The congress will also be a coming-of-age event for "princelings", the sons and daughters of incumbent, retired and late leaders. A record number of these are tipped to join the decision-making Politburo, one notch below the Standing Committee, the source with leadership ties said.
Candidates include new Shanghai Party boss Xi Jinping, Commerce Minister Bo Xilai and Li Yuanchao, Party leader in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
Analysts say Hu has shown surprising political skills, achieving more in five years than Jiang did in the same period.
To that end, the congress may also enhance Hu's political status. Before retirement, state media hailed Jiang as "the core" of his generation of leaders, a title Hu did not inherit.
"Hu will be the core after the 17th congress, ushering in his era," a source with leadership ties told Reuters.
Even if Hu does emerge strengthened, he faces an array of problems, including growing international concern about the safety of Chinese food and other exports.
Taiwan voters are set to decide next March on a referendum on seeking U.N. membership, just months before Beijing hosts the Olympics. China, which regards the self-ruled island as its territory, would be forced to respond, perhaps militarily.
And inflation is ticking up, the stock market has been on a roller coaster, corruption remains rampant and there are regular large protests, byproducts of China's widening rich-poor gap.
Hu has sought to correct China's course from that of the Jiang era, which featured breakneck growth at the expense of the environment, by trumpeting "scientific development" or essentially sustainable growth.
He has also reversed Jiang's emphasis on the growing ranks of capitalists and has instead pursued policies championing the poor and downtrodden and the backward countryside.
There are also hints of limited political reform. Hong Kong's Chinese-language Yazhou Zhoukan magazine said the congress would hold elections to the Politburo in which the number of candidates would exceed the number of seats for the first time. In previous elections, the number of candidates equalled the number of seats.
In a June speech, Hu set the tone for the congress, pledging to "perfect inner-party democracy to expand the Party's democratic awareness".
But he added that political reforms "must adhere to a correct political direction ... and to the Party's leadership", the routine rejection of Western-style democracy.
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