Pedestrians walk past portraits of past leaders including Zhou Enlai (left) and Mao Zedong (center) as the city prepares for the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that will see a change in the country’s leadership. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

With China facing a worsening economy, its biggest political crisis in two decades, and growing public anger and domestic unrest, what do people here say about the seismic change about to take place in the country’s top leadership?

“Wu suo wei.” It doesn’t matter.

You hear this from old men exercising in the park, from young professionals heading home from work and even, in hushed tones, from lower-ranking members of the Communist Party.

On one level, they’re probably right. The leadership change is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the majority of China’s 1.3 billion people. Neither will the masses have any say in the Communist Party’s mysterious selection of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee that rules China.

The process is so cloaked in secrecy that no one knows for sure who’s in the running besides the top two officials set to replace President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Even the date of the Party Congress at which they will be announced remains unknown — with estimates ranging from September to November.

But on another level, the leadership change will affect everything and everyone, and in many ways already has. Preparations for the 18th Party Congress have forced most of the government into gridlock for the past year, as though the entire system were holding its breath in anticipation. Major reforms and new laws have been stymied. No real solutions have been prescribed for the economy’s systemic problems even amid a worrying slowdown. And the country’s entire security apparatus has been mobilized, slowly tightening its chokehold on dissidents, journalists, grass-roots organizers and bloggers as the high-stakes meeting has drawn closer.

Apathy and concern

And so whole swaths of Beijing teeter daily between utter apathy and an intense concern that borders on paranoia.

On the paranoia side are the authorities, who have been churning out reams of pro-party copy in state-run news media, running endless security drills and generally girding up for the once-in-a-decade event. The country’s thousand-some police chiefs have been summoned to Beijing for lectures. Fire inspectors have already gone through the Party Congress venues from top to bottom — twice. Authorities have been scouring the Internet and municipalities for the smallest signs of unrest and heading them off — at times with force but also, surprisingly, sometimes with concessions to those protesting.

Many of the more coercive actions — such as chasing rural petitioners appealing to the government for help and other troublemakers out of the capital — tend to begin closer to critical events, so it’s unclear just how this year’s security crackdown will compare with those seen during previous leadership transitions. But not since the 2008 Summer Olympics, residents say, has security seemed so tight.

Military leaders have issued a flurry of statements assuring their loyalty to the yet-unnamed leaders. Equally desperate to show loyalty, even lowly toll station operators in Jiangsu province have pledged on government Web sites to ease local traffic lines as a tribute to the party meeting.

But among those outside government, talk of the transition is rare. Questions about the upcoming Party Congress are greeted with suspicion.

“You must forgive them, this is not something normal people talk about,” explained one low-wage worker after his co-workers answered one such question with silence at a cafeteria a few blocks west of the Party Congress venue in Beijing’s central Chao Yang district. “This is something for others to think about.”

“Why keep up with it? One leader or another, they are all the same,” said another middle-aged man on his lunch break. Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of government trouble, the man, a driver-for-hire, said, “I’ll know the Party Congress has started when I see police crowding the roads, and I’ll know it’s done when the roads are clear again.”

Nurtured indifference

The indifference is something the government has at times nurtured. For years, the party — looking to preserve its lock on power — has pushed the idea that an uneventful, smooth transition was not only expected, but inevitable.

And while American children are taught basic civics and the importance of elections from grade school, the real method by which China’s top leaders are chosen is unknown to anyone but the leaders themselves. Many experts, in fact, think the new line­up was decided at a meeting of party elites at a luxury costal resort early last month.

Similarly, while nearly all aspects of the American candidates’ lives have been thoroughly explored in the course of the U.S. presidential campaign, most Chinese know little about China’s leading contenders beyond their official hagiographies.

“The truth is, even if you knew such details about such individuals, it matters much less in the Chinese system,” said Huang Weiding, former deputy editor of an influential magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. When Xi Jinping — the man expected to become China’s president and top leader — gives his first few speeches after taking the reins, his words will not be entirely his own, having been carefully vetted by fellow members on the Standing Committee.

“To achieve a top position in the party, your own personality disappears from the public,” Huang said.

Because of that, it is difficult to know what, if any, change Xi and China’s other new leaders will bring.

“We are walking down a road filled with serious problems,” said one 82-year-old retired party member exercising on a recent day at a downtown park. “So, of course, the direction of the country is important and depends on the upcoming meeting. But these are not things for ordinary citizens to know, so what’s there to talk about?”

Liu Liu contributed to this report.