BEIJING -- The Chinese Communist Party's 14th national congress opening here tomorrow will strongly reaffirm Deng Xiaoping's dramatic drive to rapidly liberalize China's economy with market-oriented reforms.
The once-every-five-year meeting of 1,991 party delegates, likely be the ailing, 88-year-old Chinese patriarch's last hurrah, will also back up its rhetoric with the election of relatively young reformists to the party's ruling Politburo.
But the congress' strong endorsement of his policies will not be accompanied by a purge of party conservatives, with whom Mr. Deng has been forced to compromise.
It also is highly unlikely that the meeting will consider even marginally loosening the party's tight political control over China.
On balance, though, the congress is expected to result in at least a partial shift to a new generation of leaders in China, to more influence by technocrats rather than ideologues and to more power for provincial and military leaders.
Retirements and deaths have been moving China's old-guard revolutionaries out of the political limelight. This congress will hasten their exit.
"The gravity of political power at the top is definitely shifting toward a more radically reformist group," David Shambaugh, a London Sinologist who edits the China Quarterly, said during a recent visit here. "This is going to be a kinder, gentler China."
Analysts expect the congress to enlarge the party's 14-member Politburo to accommodate the rise of a half dozen or more technocrats, military figures and representatives of China's booming coastal provinces -- virtually all likely tilting to the reformist side.
Among the most notable of these rising stars are Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, already in charge of China's economy and trade, and General Liu Huaqing, a longtime ally of Mr. Deng and vice chairman of the party's military commission.
Two conservative Politburo members, Yao Yilin and Song Ping, are expected to retire. But Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, both considered more conservative than Mr. Deng, will remain in power -- though rumors continue to swirl about possible changes in their roles.
Meaningful political reform almost certainly will be ignored by the congress.
The congress also will not rehabilitate deposed party chief Zhao Ziyang, according to an announcement by the party Friday. Mr. Zhao has been under house arrest since being blamed for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
But Mr. Zhao's reformist influence will remain strong.
The economic reforms endorsed by the congress will mirror many of his policies, particularly his strategy of dismantling central economic controls so that China's coastal provinces can lead the nation toward a richer life. And several of his past close associates may be among the new Politburo members.
Capping China's equivalent of an election season, the congress has been preceded by a year's worth of intense campaigning, with Mr. Deng struggling to limit the influence of conservatives with whom he aligned himself in the wake of the massacre of the Tiananmen protesters.
Mr. Deng deems to have succeeded for now. But a conservative backlash still could follow, as it did after the reformist thrust of the last party congress in 1987.
The congress' formal purpose is to set China's long-range direction, to present a consensus to its citizens and the world, and to elect the party's leaders -- particularly the Politburo and the Politburo's standing committee, which is China's ultimate decision-making body.
But because of lingering party tensions, this year's congress has been preceded by an unusually wide range of rumors -- rumors collectively underscoring that power within the upper reaches of the party is becoming more diffuse rather than more concentrated.
Chief among these rumors is that President Yang Shangkun will retire, a move that could be easily delayed until next spring when Mr. Li's term as premier ends and he could succeed Mr. Yang in the titular post.
Another rumor has it that Mr. Jiang's power as party general secretary will be diluted by the creation of two new positions for deputy general secretaries.
Frequently named as the most likely candidates for these new positions are: Qiao Shi, head of state security, and Li Ruihuan, a longtime reformist in charge of propaganda and ideology. Mr. Qiao, in particular, has been identified as a rising power worthy of close watch.
The congress takes place against the backdrop of accelerated changes within China, changes that for once are not entirely under the party's direct control.
While the party's grip on the state apparatus and 1.16 billion Chinese remains strong, more than a decade of economic reform here has decentralized government decision-making, such that much power has shifted away from Beijing to China's provinces.
China's economic reforms and growth have spurred for the first time the rise of a civil society here, a society more independent of the party and the government. While party membership is growing at a healthy rate, the party appears to command less respect and attention throughout Chinese society.
Another natural by-product of greater economic freedom, political reform, is now widely considered a key issue by many party members -- despite the absence of any public debate within the party about it.
With the growing separation between China's economic and political spheres, political change here for the first time would not necessarily translate into economic instability.
But a Western diplomat here attributes party leaders' continued fear of a debate on political reform to the lessons they have drawn from the fall of the Communist Party last year in the former Soviet Union.
"They lack the confidence that once they rock the boat, it won't tip over in an out-of-control process," the diplomat said. "People are thinking about it, but it still can't be acknowledged now as an issue."