We foreign journalists in Beijing have received our beige baseball caps emblazoned with the English words: “Press Center of 18th National Congress of CPC.” (CPC means the Communist Party of China.) We have also been given by our Chinese press handlers backpacks with stickers that indicate they may have cost more than $60, along with instructions noting in English that “the straps of both sides top and bottom are used for bring map, umbrella and mats, water bottle, keys, ice ax.” Does this mean that those of us signed up to cover the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, in which China’s new leaders will be named, will have a need for a map and ice ax?
We presume not. But, then again, we don’t know for sure. Three days before a once-a-decade leadership transition is set to begin in a country boasting the world’s second largest economy, we have almost no idea about what’s actually going to happen. True, the general proceeding of events — and even the soon-to-be head honcho in China — seems clear. More than 2,000 handpicked delegates (representing China’s 82.6 million Communist Party members) will gather in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People from Nov. 8 to select the 200 or so members of the Central Committee who will, at least in theory, pick the roughly 25 members of the elite Politburo and, more crucially, the clique of powerful individuals in the Standing Committee that rules China. (A lone woman is considered a long shot for the Standing Committee, which is expected to include either seven or nine men.)
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The Standing Committee is headed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Current party chief Hu Jintao is expected to relinquish his position to Xi Jinping by the time the Party Congress wraps up, making the latter the most important man in China. Xi is expected to eventually assume two other positions — President and chairman of the Central Military Commission — but it is the Communist post that is by far the most important because in China power flows from the party.
Calls for Xi to reform the party have gathered force in recent months, even as China has profited from a decade of economic expansion under Hu’s tenure. Despite initial hopes that Hu would preside over a period of political liberalizations, rule of law and anticorruption efforts have suffered during his decade in power. Over the weekend, Hu Deping, the liberal son of a reformist former Communist Party chief who is unrelated to Hu Jintao, wrote an op-ed in a Beijing-based economic newspaper, warning: “Reform cannot be abandoned, promises cannot be discarded.”
In order to welcome its new leaders, Beijing looks spiffy. Security vehicles have multiplied across town, as the usual cavalcade of street-snack sellers have mysteriously disappeared. In a much-mocked move, various aerially inclined matters — ranging from balloons and remote-controlled toy airplanes to trained pigeons — have been banned from city skies. Taxi drivers with manually operated rear windows in their cabs have been ordered to disable their handles, lest passengers flutter antigovernment leaflets out the back.
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Yet even as these outlandish edicts were being issued, power broking was occurring behind closed doors — not that the public was privy to most of it. On Nov. 4, according to China’s state newswire Xinhua, the current Central Committee held its last meeting. What happened? Well, here’s Xinhua’s scintillating take, based on a released communiqué: “The plenary session comprehensively analyzed the current situation and task, deeply discussed several important issues concerning developing the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics under the new situation and pushing forward the new grand project of the Party building, making full preparation for the convention of the 18th CPC National Congress.” Oh, and also, the two new vice chairmen were appointed to the Central Military Commission, sparking a frenzy of martial analysis among some of the 1,000 or so foreign journalists who have applied to cover the 18th Party Congress.
It’s remarkable that so little is known about what will actually happen during the upcoming conclave. A Service Guide for Journalists notes helpfully that Western-style snacks will be served in the press center, but there is no real detail about actual events. As of Monday afternoon, an online guide to the upcoming Party Congress had listed only two events directly related to the communist gathering: a cocktail party for journalists on Nov. 6 and a press conference the day after. Like most press conferences in China, it’s certain Wednesday’s event will be a scripted one in which random journalists won’t be allowed to fling questions at the 18th Party Congress spokesperson.
Even the date when the congress will end is not clear, although many people suspect it will be Nov. 15. “We have no detailed information of the schedule of the 18th Party Congress,” Yue Xiaosong, an official at the 18th Party Congress Press Center, told TIME on Monday. “I don’t know the date when the congress will finish.” Yue’s only suggestion to TIME was that we should look at previous Party Congress schedules as a general guideline. But he quickly cautioned that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the past. “It will depend on how well the 18th Party Congress goes,” he said, when pressed on just when the confab will end. No details were provided on what he meant by the meeting going “well.” A TIME colleague suggests the wording on the cap in the press swag bag should be changed to: “Somebody I Know Went to the 18th Party Congress, and All I Got Was This Stupid Hat.”
—With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing