As the Communist Party's congress begins in Beijing, the media are full of speculation -- not about potential reforms but about power. The question: Who will succeed Hu Jintao as nominal leader of China if he steps down on turning 70 in 2010?

A scholar-official from the Ming or Qing dynasties would understand the situation exactly. Classical historiography calls succession the guoben, or root of the state: the designation of the prince who will succeed as emperor upon his father's death.

The scholar-officials knew that the passing of power from one emperor to another was the most perilous moment for a dynasty. The eventual abdication-at-gunpoint of the Qing in 1912 can be traced to the Empress Dowager's coup d'etat against the reforming Guangxu emperor in 1898, which gravely harmed dynastic legitimacy. (He was then confined in the Beijing palace complex, to die mysteriously in 1908, one day before the Empress Dowager).

Hu has nominally held undivided power in China for barely a year (only since September 2004, when Jiang Zemin gave up his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and with that his hopes of ruling from offstage, like the Empress Dowager or Deng Xiaoping). Yet already the issue of succession is on the front pages. So has nothing changed since the Qing? Are the rulers of the People's Republic of China no more than "new emperors" embroiled in palace politics?

The answer is a resounding "no" in spite of the illuminating historical parallels. The reason? The imperial families of old ruled by the Tianming, or "mandate of Heaven," but that concept disappeared, replaced early in the 20th century by the concepts of "the people" as the source of legitimate rule and of "democracy" as the means of determining it. Nearly every ruler since the Qing abdication, even Mao Zedong, has paid eloquent lip service to these ideas, no matter how despotic he may have been in ambition or practice.

This entry of the "people" -- the min -- into the formulas of power has been slow to change reality, and in Beijing contention for office still resembles the Qing in practice far more than it does genuine democracy. But that situation is most likely unsustainable.

Actual rule by the Communist Party elite -- roughly 20 men in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission and a few other top positions -- is no longer possible because those men lack the personal ability to compel obedience that Mao and Deng won on the battlefield or through bloody purges and intrigues. When a provincial leader received a phone call from Mao or Deng, he quaked in his boots knowing that his life might be in danger. When Hu Jintao calls, however, that leader will simply consider what bargaining strategy to adopt. When it comes to power, for the current Communist elite it is a case of ming cun shi wang: "The name remains, but the reality is gone."

Nor can the Chinese Communist Party regain its once near-total control of China by any of the methods now being used or discussed -- whether by expansion of armed internal security forces, more arrests and attempted control of all media including the Internet; by stimulation of the economy; or even by internal reform of the party.

Today only the people can anoint a leader and government that will enjoy real power in China, and that can happen only through an open political process. Beijing's power has been slipping since the provinces received new autonomy after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Now the "governance without politics" that has existed since strongman Deng Xiaoping died in 1997 is approaching its limits.

The end may come from above, conceivably by a well-planned transition but more likely when a would-be leader tries to break an elite deadlock by turning to the people. Or it may come from below, as increasing dissatisfaction with poverty, corruption and violence leads to change at the top or to regions taking over self-government

Party rule from Beijing is increasingly an elaborately staged play. Its intricacies will doubtless continue to engage the attention of China-watchers. But they should not forget the people, crowding ever more noisily outside the theater. One way or another, we will hear from them -- and we must be ready.

The writer teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.