BEIJING (Reuters) - In Mao Zedong's day, the world was not even aware China's ruling Communist Party was holding one of its agenda-setting congresses until the whole event was over.
When the meeting packed up, firecrackers lit up the sky over Beijing and state television announced its great success, with no one outside of the Party's inner circle any the wiser about what went on behind closed doors.
The Mao era is long over, but the Party is still firmly in charge, and with its 17th Congress under way, the door to its secretive meetings is opening -- if only by a crack.
"The Central Committee told delegates to be more open to foreign journalists," said one Congress worker, referring to the Party's 200-strong governing body.
That would allow the Party to show to the world that it was unified and open, the delegate said.
Indeed, over a one-and-a-half day period, a record 34 group discussions, at which delegates gathered to comment on President Hu Jintao's state-of-the-nation report, were open to reporters, and several allowed time for journalists to raise questions.
In a break with form, many interview requests were granted.
But in a system which still guards leadership decisions as state secrets, the moves create more of a theatre of openness than true transparency.
Photos of officials surrounded by reporters grace government Web sites and make the front pages of local newspapers, creating an impression of responsiveness on economic policy, while diverting attention from more sensitive political news.
"This new openness is a sign of Hu Jintao's strength," said a Chinese political scientist, who declined to be identified. "Hu will score points with the people because the publicity shows he cares about the people's welfare."
The Congress has offered rare access to senior officials, but their responses are usually laced with the Party's catch phrases and frankness is rare.
Interviews are typically attended by other officials, in a reminder to the interviewee not to reveal anything too sensitive.
The scarcity of opportunities to come close to China's leaders was also illustrated by the aggression of reporters.
In the melee to reach Guangdong Party boss Zhang Dejiang, reporters overturned tables, sent tea cups flying, and finally prompted the intervention of a handler to prevent one who was knocked over from being trampled.
Sessions presided over by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who head Shanghai and the northeastern Liaoning province, were crammed with reporters straining to glean clues as to the nature of the two, who are most talked about to become China's leaders in 2012.
While the Congress will culminate in the announcement of a new leadership team under Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, officials at the centre of speculation over promotions remained tight-lipped.
"That has no basis. It's all unfounded rumours," Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Yuanchao told reporters when asked about his chances for promotion.
And if the first response for most officials faced with a badgering media is to clam up, some delegates said being open was an order from the top.
"To not be open is abnormal, it's problematic," said delegate Xu Weixi, Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Oilfield. "We should, in line with Party General Secretary Hu Jintao's requirements, be even more open."
(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, Lucy Hornby and Ben Blanchard)
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