BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Communist Party elite gathers on Tuesday to explore ways to ensure its one-party rule survives the strains of rapid economic growth and an increasingly fluid and divided society.
The gathering may also reveal personnel moves that suggest how Chinese President Hu Jintao will pass power to a successor generation as he approaches retirement from 2012, as well as provide clues to any changes in economic policy.
While Hu will promote the nation's outward ambitions at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh next week, the communist party Central Committee meeting will act as a reminder his government remains worried about surmounting domestic challenges.
The Central Committee full session, or plenum, will meet in closed session until Friday, and official media reports have said the some 200 full members will discuss "inner-party democracy", a term for making decision-making more open and rule-based.
Behind that stolid theme lies the leadership's fears that its control could eventually slip as Chinese society becomes increasingly wealthy, fragmented and assertive.
"Recently, mass incidents in some areas have exposed the indifference and weak governing abilities of a few leading officials," said a commentary on the Plenum in Outlook Weekly, a magazine issued by the official Xinhua news agency.
"If a ruling party's members cannot correctly handle the power in their hands, become high-handed and divorced from the masses, this ruling party will ultimately be rejected by the people," said the commentary.
The Central Committee meets in these full sessions usually once a year to endorse policy directions laid down by leaders.
Such meetings do not announce specific measures on the economy -- a task usually left to government meetings -- but the documents likely to emerge may give some signs about the direction of policy.
Drawing an analogy with Hu's own path to power, some observers have said Vice President Xi Jinping may reinforce his claim to Hu's spot by also taking a position on the Central Military Commission that oversees the People's Liberation Army.
Analysts said dramatic policy changes are most unlikely, and talk of "inner-party democracy" may bring wary adjustments to party control, but nothing to challenge that control.
"Inner-party democracy cannot develop unless there is some sort of societal democracy," said Joseph Fewsmith, an professor of Chinese politics at Boston University.
"They have yet to make a choice whether they are going to loosen in some way vertical hierarchical controls, even within the Party," Fewsmith said of China's leaders.
STRENGTH AND ANXIETY
The Communist Party is preparing for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and plans to use the Oct 1 celebrations to display its confidence, strength and programme to create an "harmonious society."
But strains between the Party and the public recently welled up in the far-west region of Xinjiang recently, when Han Chinese residents of Urumqi, the regional capital, massed in front of government offices to demand the sacking of Xinjiang's veteran Party chief.
The Han Chinese residents said the government had not acted quickly enough to punish Muslim Uighurs who took part in deadly ethnic riots on July 5, and they were also alarmed by spreading claims that Uighurs were attacking residents with syringes.
Even in Chinese towns and villages free of ethnic divisions, officials have faced violent protests that reflected deepening public estrangement from officials accused of corruption, self-enrichment and abusing their powers.
"The Party leadership sees stability as something that can easily slip from its grasp," said Chen Ziming, a dissident who writes regularly on Chinese politics.
"That encourages this sense of constant vigilance," said Chen. "But that anxiety also prevents the Party from taking any bold steps."
The key to stifling these budding threats to one-Party rule lies in strengthening checks on corruption and giving the Party's 75.9 million members a clearer say in decisions and scrutinising appointments, state media reports about the Plenum have said.
Yet even the Party's own experts voiced only modest hopes.
"The system that was formed over a long time means that whenever we run into problems, we tend to deal with them through centralised measures," Wang Changjiang, a reform-minded professor at the Central Party School told Outlook Weekly. The Central Party Schools trains rising officials.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by David Fox)