BEIJING - China's Communist Party elite approved a list of candidates for top positions yesterday, setting the stage for final negotiations that will be a key indicator of President Hu Jintao's political strength.
Today, the more than 2,200 delegates to a weeklong party congress will select the Central Committee, a body that appoints top leaders and sets broad policy goals.
Recent months have brought fractious backroom bargaining among senior party members, although Hu has issued a customary call for unity at the congress, held once every five years.
The result of the tussle will determine how strong or divided the leadership is as it tries to ease tensions over a wide rich-poor gap at home and manage China's rising clout abroad so as not to anger the United States and other world powers.
The congress is all but certain to give Hu a second five-year term as party chief. But for him, the event offers a chance to pack leading party organizations with allies, including a potential successor, thereby giving himself a freer hand to shape policies.
At today's Central Committee selection, a test for Hu will be whether Vice President Zeng Qinghong is on the list.
A skilled party operator, Zeng rose to power as an aide to Hu's predecessor, helping him shove aside rivals. Though Zeng has also helped Hu do the same, his presence is seen as a constraint on Hu's power and at 68, Zeng is around the party's soft retirement age for most leaders.
Aside from selecting the Central Committee, the congress will appoint the members of the party's internal corruption watchdog agency and adopt a revision to the party's charter endorsing a reference to Hu's pet policy initiative - "the scientific outlook on development."
The program, a hallmark of Hu's first five years, has called for increased social spending to help farmers and urban workers whose living standards have not risen as fast as those of many other Chinese under capitalist economic reforms.
The new Central Committee will meet tomorrow to approve the lineup of the powerful Politburo and its Standing Committee, which runs China.
Though congress and Central Committee delegates have some influence over leadership decisions, most of the lineup is decided among a core group of the most powerful party members and elders.
State-run media reported that a 237-member steering committee led by Hu approved the final candidate list for the Central Committee after two days of consultations with congress delegates. China Central Television showed Hu and other leaders raising their hands in approval.
"The candidates' ideological and political qualities were relatively higher," CCTV reported. "Their work experiences were relatively more practical."
Neither the habitually secretive party nor state media publicized the names or number of candidates, in keeping with standard procedure, although state media reported yesterday that delegates had whittled down the list.
Speculation has swirled for months over who will receive seats on the top body, with Hu's favorite, Li Keqiang, encountering resistance from other party leaders who fear giving the president too much sway.
The 52-year-old Li, party head of the industrial province of Liaoning, is seen as Hu's choice of successor but faces competition for the title from Xi Jinping, the son of a revolutionary who governs the financial powerhouse of Shanghai.
Another Hu ally, Liu Yandong, minister of the Party's United Front Work Department, is expected to become the only female member of the Politburo.
Li Yuanchao, party head of the wealthy Jiangsu Province in the east coast, and Wang Yang, who runs the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, also are candidates to join the Politburo.
While few analysts expect the congress to change China's prodevelopment policies, Hu's consolidation of power could make it easier for him to address concerns that rapid growth has been achieved at the expense of the environment and has aggravated social equalities.
Hu's "scientific outlook" concept emphasizes sustainable growth.
In his address opening the congress, Hu promised to expand social security and health insurance programs and increase subsidies for rural education.
The programs are intended to salve the country's social divisions, which the party has had difficulty controlling.
There are still a considerable number of impoverished and low-income people in urban and rural areas, and it has become more difficult to accommodate the interests of all sides," Hu said in his speech.
Hu proposed changes intended to make the government more responsive to public demands. Government advisory bodies that include nonparty members will be expanded and party-controlled legislatures will get more rural representatives, he said.
Hu also offered to hold talks to formally end hostilities with Taiwan, which split from China 58 years ago. But he called on Taiwan to acknowledge that it is part of China, which it immediately rejected.