Paramilitary policemen guard a road between Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, where the Chinese Communist Party's 18th National Congress will be held starting Thursday in Beijing. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

China’s once-a-decade leadership transition began Thursday with all the pageantry, security and behind-the-scenes political intrigue befitting the secretive Communist Party’s most sensitive event.

The usually crowded Tiananmen Square had been cleared, giving it an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel. Activists had been chased out of the capital, and buildings across the city were draped in flags, flowers and signs, all colored communist red.

But beneath the pomp of the 18th party congress, estimated to last one week, are deep implications for the U.S.-China relationship and the world.

“At present, as the global, national and our party’s conditions continue to undergo profound changes, we are faced with unprecedented opportunities for development as well as risks and challenges unknown before,” President Hu Jintao said in his opening speech at the meeting. He addressed the problem of corruption and promised a wide range of reforms.

China’s new leaders will take over at a critical moment. The country’s economy, the world’s second largest, has been growing for three decades, providing much-needed fuel for the regional and global economy and helping to ensure stability at home. But it has slowed in recent months, and many believe economic reform is desperately needed.

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China’s complicated and often-fraught relationship with the United States also has been stalled for much of the past year, with China-bashing figuring prominently during the U.S. presidential election.

At a news conference Wednesday, Communist Party spokesman Cai Mingzhao expressed hope that with his reelection, President Obama would “continue to build a positive China policy.”

In recent years, the Obama administration has invested time and energy into nurturing ties with the next generation of Chinese leaders. Vice President Biden, in particular, has tried to develop a rapport with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to replace Hu as leader of the Communist Party and the country next week. Xi is expected to assume the title of president in March.

But whether that U.S. investment will translate into greater clout with China on thorny issues such as Syria, Iran, Taiwan or Tibet, or into better overall U.S.-
China relations, is unclear.

Hope for reform

The highly scripted party congress carries serious domestic implications. Party officials are encountering growing criticism of corruption, their vested interests in state-owned enterprises, and the secrecy and democratic veneer used to cloak their iron grip on the country’s levers of powers.

In recent weeks, calls for reform have become louder, including some from within the party, prompting some analysts to say that a measure of change may be possible.

But experts caution that what party leaders see as reform could differ greatly from the outside world’s understanding of the word.

“It would not be political reform the West talks about,” said one intellectual with connections to party officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “It will not mean a real multiparty system or an elected leader, but rather reforms that help the party preserve credibility, strengthen the economy and, above all, keep its hold on power.”

A secretive process

The willingness of the new generation of leaders to undertake such change will depend on its makeup, which remains a mystery.

For weeks, speculative lists have circulated among party insiders — sometimes overlapping, at other times contradictory — of who may be named to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Most experts believe that the decision has been made in secret by retired party elders and current leaders. But others say the list may be open to attack or change up to the last minute, given the fierce competition among party factions.

To distract the public from that closed and secretive process, party leaders have stuffed the next days with an array of events, including news briefings, the unveiling of official party reports, and countless meetings and group discussions among the party congress’s 2,270 delegates — all designed to promote the party as a vibrant, democratic organization.

Four news conferences also are scheduled in the coming week to address areas of mounting criticism: the party’s opaque system of internal promotions, environmental destruction, the economy, and government censorship and other restrictions on culture.

But answers to the most pressing questions will be gleaned mainly by reading between the lines. Provincial officials and analysts will be poring over a report that Hu is scheduled to deliver Thursday morning on the party’s recent work and accomplishments, parsing its meaning for clues to the party’s direction.

Other telling details include not just the names of the new Standing Committee members, but also the roles each person is assigned and whether Hu retains his position as head of China’s military, even as he cedes the party leadership to Xi.

None of this, however, will be made clear until the day after the party congress ends, when the lineup is expected to be announced.

And like most things related to the party, even the date of that final announcement, speculated by some to be Nov. 15, remains a secret.

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.