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China’s Communist Party to set 5-year plan

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BEIJING >> China’s Communist Party wraps up an annual conference Monday that is expected to approve an economic blueprint aiming to narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor and begin the delicate preparations for a new generation of leaders.

No details have been released of the four-day closed-door meeting of the party’s Central Committee headed by President Hu Jintao, the biggest party gathering of the year and the subject of intense scrutiny. The front page of the party’s flagship People’s Daily carried a story on the successes of the five-year economic plan that ends in December, but no reports on the new plan expected to be approved by the committee.

China’s economy has boomed over the past three decades, but it has been an uneven expansion, producing hundreds of millionaires while leaving much of the countryside mired in poverty.

The government has struggled to deal with the issue and is expected to focus again on ways to improve the lives of the poor, especially in the underdeveloped west, in the plan for the 2011-2015 period.

“The period would be critical for building a moderately prosperous society,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in its report Friday on the start of the meeting.

The new five-year plan is also expected to focus on green technology and improving China’s energy efficiency, while boosting government services and making officials more accountable to the public.

The meeting also comes amid signs of divisions among the leadership over the scope of political reform. Premier Wen Jiabao has made a number of statements calling for unspecified changes to the one-party system, but others in the leadership have denounced any moves to adopt Western-style democratic institutions.

No major changes are expected, although the party may adopt limited measures to improve government efficiency.

Besides the yawning wealth gap, leaders of the 78 million-member party also have to deal with a public dissatisfied with rising inflation, high housing prices, employment woes among college graduates, endemic corruption, while Tibetan and Muslim regions of western China are held in check by a smothering security presence. Abroad, China is facing criticism from the U.S. for its currency and trade practices and its support for North Korea and ties with Iran.

The meeting could also give further signs of how smoothly plans are proceeding to elevate a new generation of leaders in 2012, when President and party boss Hu Jintao and many others on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power, are expected to step down in keeping with past precedent.

Hu’s expected successor is current Vice President Xi Jinping, a consensus pick who many China watchers believe is not Hu’s first choice. Xi is expected to receive a position on the party’s influential Central Military Commission following the meeting, in an indication that the succession is proceeding smoothly.

A failure to receive that appointment would likely fuel speculation that Xi is meeting with considerable opposition.

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