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Democracy in China? Politics appear little changed

BEIJING — To judge by the reports in China's state-run news media, the Communist Party took a bold step toward democracy at the just completed 17th National Congress, which approved a new leadership team to run the country.

President Hu Jintao used the word democracy 61 times in his main address to the congress. The official Xinhua news agency reported that the party nominated 221 candidates to fill the 204 full seats on the Central Committee, meaning that 8.3 percent of those deemed eligible did not get a seat. Xinhua called this a "competitive election."

China's one-party system convenes congresses every five years to ratify leadership decisions on policy and personnel. The message is not change but continuity.

After months of secretive negotiations, the nine members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, the country's top ruling body, were presented to the public for the first time on Monday morning. Their appointment was fait accompli, and the stiff, scripted ceremony to introduce them, which lasted barely 10 minutes, resembled a Communist coronation.

In his first five years as China's No. 1 leader, Hu argued repeatedly that the growth-above-all philosophy that began under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s had side effects. Too many workers and peasants had failed to benefit from the long-lasting economic boom. The party should redistribute more to the least well off by providing better state-financed pensions, health care and education, he said.

Hu has tried to rein in provincial authorities and pushed to recentralize some decision-making, reduce wasteful state investment and slow the expansion of polluting industries.

Some progress has been made. Agricultural taxes were eliminated. Tough directives to fight pollution and improve energy efficiency have been issued if not fully put into use.

Yet most of those changes are incremental, enacted only after the full leadership reached a consensus. Far from distancing himself from his predecessors, Hu has repeatedly pledged to follow the dictums of Deng and Jiang Zemin, presenting his own ideas as evolutionary.

The new Politburo Standing Committee, like the old, consists of nine men. Even most of the new members are seen as beholden to Jiang, who at 81 has been fully retired for three years, as well as to Hu, 64. The personnel shifts did not suggest that the president would have any new leverage to ram through an assertive agenda for change, even if he had one.