BEIJING (AP) — China's tumultuous, bizarre year in politics appears headed for a home stretch, with leading members of the ruling Communist Party convening to finalize a list of new leaders and decide the fate of a disgraced colleague.
A highly anticipated meeting of the decision-making Politburo is expected to take place as early as Friday, party-connected academics and analysts said. Afterward, state media are expected to announce dates for a party congress, a pivotal event to install the new leadership.
Dates for the congress, which is held once every five years in mid-October, are overdue. Dates for the past three congresses were all announced in late August.
The delay is yet another sign of disarray over a power transition that has become fractious despite party leaders' attempts to display public unity.
"Is it unprecedented? No. Is it unusual? Yes," former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said of the delay.
"It just introduces questions among people who are watching China and wondering what's going on," Armitage said at an academic forum this week in Washington.
Disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai has been the focal point of much of the tumult, which has featured a murder, corruption, two high-profile trials and a deadly car crash, all of which exposed bare-knuckled infighting among a leadership that prefers secrecy.
The turmoil was set off when a trusted Bo aide disclosed that his boss's wife had murdered a British businessman. Bo was sacked as party chief of the city of Chongqing; his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence after confessing to the murder; and the aide, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, received a 15-year prison term for initially covering up the murder and other misdeeds.
The trials of Wang, which wrapped up this week, and Gu, which finished earlier, cleared the way for the party to decide whether to charge Bo with criminal wrongdoing. But his ouster from the leadership early this year opened a window into the divisive jostling for power as president and party leader Hu Jintao prepares to retire to make way for younger leaders.
One of Hu's top lieutenants was shunted aside last month, a half-year after his son died crashing his Ferrari, a sign of corruption. Hu's anointed successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, dropped from sight for two weeks this month for reasons unexplained. Retired top leader Jiang Zemin reappeared at a theatrical performance this week, in what was seen as a public showing of his continued — and for his rivals unwelcomed — influence over appointments and policy making.
Meanwhile, the government is grappling with a rapidly slowing economy and a bitter territorial dispute with Japan that sparked violent street protests and is having an impact on trade ties. Labor unrest, a growing urban middle class, and anger over corruption and illegal land seizures are fueling demands for reform.
Given all the tumult, it's little wonder that planning for the congress might have been disrupted, said Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the government's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"In view of some uncertainties both at home and abroad, such as the dispute (with Japan), it's quite understandable if we see a bit of a delay because agreements need to be reached over some major issues," Liu said.
While the party does not publicly announce Politburo meetings in advance, foreign diplomats and party members working in state media and at a Beijing university say they have been informed verbally of its convening. They said it would be held either Friday or over the weekend.
Behind the scenes, the Politburo will do much more than approve the congress dates. It is expected to approve the slate of leaders and senior military commanders who for the next decade will guide China, the world's second-largest economy and an increasingly assertive diplomatic and military power.
The Politburo decisions set in train a series of events. The 204-member Central Committee, a cross-section of the national party elite, usually convenes about a week before the congress to approve decisions already made by the Politburo. Privately, the committee will approve the incoming leaders and a policy blueprint for the next five years. Publicly, they are expected to announce the party's decision on Bo.
Rank-and-file delegates to the party congress, which is a mostly ceremonial event, have not been told when the congress will be held. Beijing delegate Yu Dan, a noted Confucian scholar, has yet to receive any notice about when to be ready, she said through an assistant.
But signs that the congress is nearing have abounded in recent days. State media are running special newspaper sections and television news segments welcoming the congress. Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the congress would be held "soon."
"We are confident that this important meeting will lead China's reform, opening-up and modernization drive to a new stage," Yang said.